Canyon County

Canyon County’s jail is nearly overflowing. And no, it’s not because of pot arrests

New jail bond? Here’s what the current Canyon County Jail looks like.

Canyon County Sheriff's Lt. Dale Stafford gives a tour of the current 28-year-old jail and explains what would change in a new one.
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Canyon County Sheriff's Lt. Dale Stafford gives a tour of the current 28-year-old jail and explains what would change in a new one.

More than 400 people have to call this place a temporary home. It has cracked concrete floors. The ceilings are stained by leaky pipes. There’s chipping paint and trash bags covering windows. It smells like metal, dirt and body odor.

This is the Canyon County jail in Caldwell. It was built 28 years ago, and it has a story that’s well-known: It is dilapidated and so full of inmates that the sheriff has to use a canvas tent to catch the overflow and regularly house inmates elsewhere.

That is why, for the fourth time since 2006 but first time since 2010, the Canyon County Board of Commissioners will ask taxpayers on May 21 to approve a bond to build a new jail, this time for $187 million. That breaks down to an annual cost of $94.43 per $100,000 of taxable property value. The bond, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, would be on a 20-year repayment plan, with an estimated interest rate of 3.47 percent.

When the Dale G. Haile Detention Center was built — the jail’s official name — the population of Canyon County was roughly 90,076 people. Today the population is 217,180, according to the Sheriff’s Office, which has long fought for a new facility. And with more growth comes more crime. From Sept. 1, 2018, through Feb. 28, 2019, for instance, there were 5,227 people booked into the jail — nearly 900 per month.

The Canyon County Commission is again asking for a bond on the May 21 ballot to build a new jail. The current jail was built 28 years ago and is so full of inmates that the sheriff has to use a tent facility for overflow. Katherine Jones

The crowded booking area at the jail sees a steady stream of people, coming in for anything from driving under the influence to violent crimes. Some are booked and released, and others spend months there awaiting trial.

Among the hundreds of inmates are the roughly 110 full-time deputies, working in shifts and tasked with keeping themselves safe; with keeping inmates safe from each other and safe from self-harm; and with preventing them from escaping and endangering the public.

The conditions don’t help. The cramped nature of the jail can create both a depressing and dangerous environment for the staff and inmates, said Canyon County Sheriff’s Capt. Daren Ward.

Sheriff’s Lt. Dale Stafford said that a new jail would allow deputies to better classify and monitor inmates, and separate them when needed. He disregards the notion from critics that Canyon County is attempting to build the Taj Mahal of jails. He said this is about public safety.

In fact, the Sheriff’s Office estimates that about 700 people are out of jail on pretrial release even though most do not meet the risk-assessment standard and should be incarcerated while awaiting trial. But there’s nowhere to house them.

“We’re not building a new jail for the inmates,” Stafford said. “We’re building a new jail for the community.”

The annex is old, inefficient and unable to be repaired, say officials. Deputies have hung coverings over the windows Deputy Chuck Davlin, who just recently retired, oversaw three inmates who slept during the day and worked as janitors during the night. Katherine Jones

The Sheriff’s Office has endured nine escapes from the tent facility, several riots, and at least one serious assault on a deputy at the hands of an inmate.

And the status of the jail has been an issue for years. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Canyon County facility was no longer bound under federal court oversight due to a lawsuit on conditions that the ACLU called “indecent, cruel and inhumane.” The ACLU initially sued the county in 2009 amid complaints of chronic overcrowding.

Ward acknowledges now that the lawsuit raised valid concerns and forced change that was necessary. Proponents of the jail bond say that more change is the only solution.

Life at the jail

The Canyon County Sheriff’s Office estimates that an average jail deputy with a 20-year career will spend roughly six years of his or her life working at the jail.

The average length of stay for an inmate is about 15 days, Ward said.

On an average Wednesday morning, a line of shackled inmates waits to be shipped out to state prisons after being sentenced in Canyon County. The Sheriff’s Office tries to do this promptly in an effort to open up county beds for new arrests.

Shackled inmates wait to be shipped out to the state prisons after being sentenced in Canyon County. The sheriff’s office tries to do this promptly in an effort to open up county beds for new arrests. Katherine Jones

With only 77 available beds for females, women are regularly housed in other counties at a big additional cost. It’s about $82 a day to keep an inmate in the Canyon County facility, but the Sheriff’s Office estimates that it’s around $312 a day to house them out of the county, including transportation, staffing for the inmate transport, overtime for deputies and payment to the other county facility.

The county spent at least $721,375 in fiscal year 2018 on those placements. As of May 2, Canyon County taxpayers were paying around $1,425 a day to other counties to house inmates, not including additional costs for staffing and transportation, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Overcrowding has also forced the use of the even older jail annex, built 71 years ago, to house inmate workers and some women. The annex opened in 1948 and is badly outdated, creating safety concerns, according to officials.

For example, exposed plumbing not only creates the risk of water and sewage leaking, but also the risk of a suicidal inmate hanging themselves from the pipes. At least one inmate has attempted to use the plumbing to that end, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

What about drug offenders?

A criticism from some opposed to the jail bond is the claim that Idaho incarcerates too many people for possession of marijuana, a drug that is now legal in some form in all neighboring states except Wyoming.

So what if they just let out all of the people arrested for minor pot possession? Wouldn’t that ease overcrowding?

Well, the reality is that Canyon County law enforcement generally doesn’t take people to jail for possessing a small amount of pot. In March alone, there were 1,182 people arrested who were booked into the jail. Only eight of those were for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

The Dale Haile Detention Center was built 28 years ago and is so full of inmates that the sheriff has to use a tent facility for overflow. The Canyon County Commission is again asking for a bond on the May 21 ballot to build a new jail. The current jail is aging and has faced multiple lawsuits and escapes. Katherine Jones

Notably, Canyon County law enforcement wrote 74 tickets for possession of marijuana in March, which means 66 people were given tickets and a summons to appear in court, and then let go. They had their marijuana seized.

Of the eight people actually booked, this is how they ended up in jail:

  • 1 was a warrant arrest, sentenced to zero days at arraignment
  • 4 were sentenced to inmate labor detail
  • 1 was arraigned, then granted pretrial release
  • 1 was arraigned and released without bail
  • 1 was sentenced to 10 days “with all options,” meaning they could have been granted house arrest or options such as an ankle monitor

The Idaho State Police, Nampa Police Department, Caldwell Police Department and the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office all told the Statesman that they have a general policy of citing and releasing individuals found with a small amount of marijuana. Booking them into jail would be necessary only if the person had outstanding warrants or had been charged with additional crimes.

From temporary to semi-permanent

In 2006, the Sheriff’s Office was forced to build the tent facility, located across the street from the main jail. It holds 122 people, supervised by just three deputies. The men in the tent circulate and the deputies walk among them, hoping to keep the peace.

Thirteen years after its construction, the tent is still being used to house minimum-security inmates because there is no room in the main facility. It was never intended to be used for that. Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has repeatedly said the tent was meant to house only work-release inmates, but overcrowding forced their hand.

“Three to 122 is not good odds,” said Stafford, on the daily challenge to control the large number of inmates being supervised in the tent. “But that’s the risk our deputies take.”

The Dale Haile Detention Center suffers from overcrowding on a regular basis. Katherine Jones

Between 2016 and 2018, there were nine escapes from the tent facility, and the Sheriff’s Office has been forced to install multiple upgrades, including adding fencing and hardening the walls that inmates were ripping through.

Stafford noted that even with the upgrades, it is still just a canvas exterior, not a permanent building, and a heavy storm with strong winds could cause a collapse.

“What do we do with these inmates then?” Stafford said.

Trying to keep beds open

The Sheriff’s Office has a goal of keeping the facility at 80 percent of capacity to leave space for new arrests or to separate inmates who can’t be housed together due to fighting or other issues. But the facility regularly exceeds that limit.

On April 29, for example, the jail was at 95.6 percent of capacity, and the county was housing 25 inmates at other facilities.

The problem is exacerbated if there is a busy weekend. Stafford said the concern about simply having nowhere to put inmates could become reality.

“If they can’t post bond, we have nowhere to put them the next day,” Stafford said about weekend arrests.

With only 77 available beds for females, women are regularly housed out of county in other facilities at an additional cost. Katherine Jones

The desperate need for more female housing led to the decision to install secure trailers in a parking lot by the end of the summer. They are approved to last just five years, another temporary solution that will cost the county roughly $4.5 million. The trailers could hold up to 122 single-cell beds.

More safety concerns

The lack of available bed space has forced authorities to house inmates together who otherwise would be separated, such as rival gang members.

In 2018, rival gang members fought and caused upheaval at the jail, and 25 people were charged with rioting. Prosecutors indicated that the riots created a risk to other inmates and jail staff, noting that not all of the people caught up in the fight were career criminals or gang members.

In October 2017, authorities say, an inmate attempted to escape the jail’s main facility and badly hurt a deputy in the process, leaving the deputy dazed and bloodied with head injuries.

Escapes from the tent facility have created a slew of safety concerns, including one instance in which an escapee went immediately to his alleged victim’s home after fleeing.

The jail annex has numerous issues, including exposed plumbing that is dangerous if an inmate becomes suicidal. Katherine Jones

Where would a new jail go?

In 2016, the Caldwell City Council denied a special use permit for a permanent expansion of the current jail, a plan that some former Canyon County commissioners supported. Without the permit, expanding the existing jail is not an option, and the commission now is populated by members who back a new facility.

The county already owns property on U.S. 20/26 where construction could begin, should the bond be approved. The property is about 3 miles from the courthouse, and sewer and water services are already in place.

The hope is to build a facility with 1,055 beds — 578 more than the current jail has — to serve the county for the next 30 years, according to officials.

The Sheriff’s Office has been holding town-hall meetings to answer questions about the bond request. Three more will be held next week:

  • 6 p.m. Monday, May 13, at the Nampa Public Library, 215 12th Ave. S., Nampa
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Wilder Rural Fire Protection District, 601 Patriot Way, Wilder
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, at the Canyon County Administration Building, 111 N. 11th Ave., Caldwell
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Reporter Ruth Brown covers the criminal justice and correctional systems in Idaho. She focuses on breaking news, public safety and social justice. Prior to coming to the Idaho Statesman, she was a reporter at the Idaho Press-Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and the Idaho Falls Post Register.