CALDWELL -- Security and overcrowding problems have plagued the Canyon County jail for years. The problem really came to a head last year when eight inmates escaped from the jail's tent facility, highlighting the desperate need for tighter security measures, and for the sheriff and his office, highlighting the need for a new jail.
The topic of construction of a new jail has been a controversial point between Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue and Canyon County Commissioners for the past few years.
Earlier this year, Caldwell City Council required the Canyon County Sheriff's office to be in compliance with a special use permit and come up with solutions to fix the jail's tent facility, which currently houses 95 minimum-security inmates.
"Now that we're keeping those types of people in here, you've got to change the design at a necessity because we don't have enough room in the hard jail," Sheriff Donahue added. "We agree with the city that it needed to be done. So, yeah, it's a band-aid but even if you build a new jail, you're three to four years out from construction time to completion to inhabitation of it."
They took the first steps a couple months ago and construction is currently under way for the remaining measures. Sheriff Donahue says we should see all of the improvements completed in about a week or so, helping make the tent facility safer.
On half a dozen instances over the past year, inmates escaped by either hopping the recreation yard fence, cutting a hole through the tent fabric, or hopping over the short kitchen wall inside and pushing open the exterior door.
"Even with two deputies, we've had guys go over the fence," Sheriff Donahue told KTVB.
So the Caldwell City Council told Canyon County earlier this year that it was time to make changes - changes Sheriff Donahue says were originally supposed to happen in 2010 after this facility moved away from housing work-release inmates and began housing minimum- to medium-risk inmates.
"The county said they'd do it. The county didn't do it. Then fast forward to last year when we have six escapes involving eight individuals, it came to a crescendo. And then we went back to City Council and said, 'will you allow us to continue using it?' And they were like, 'well, you have to make modifications'," Sheriff Donahue added.
Donahue says the county has spent at least a couple hundred thousand dollars on engineering and installation of these new improvements at the tent jail facility.
"So it's just a continuation of kicking the can down the road and as a county we [got to] stop kicking the can down the road, and we [got to] pay the piper."
Over the last year, with approval from the county commissioners, the sheriff's office built the first in a series of security upgrades. First, they put up hard walls around the interior of the tent; then they expanded the chain link fence around the part of the tent that was cut open; they built a large metal lid over the kitchen area and replaced the kitchen door that opens up to the outside.
"This does really prevent that from happening again," the sheriff said. "We're putting a lot of money to do these types of things as a necessity."
The last two upgrades in the works are critical to keep inmates in, contraband out and the public safe, Donahue says: in the works right now is a secure fence lid over the rec area.
"Once they're in here, it'll be just an enclosed area," the sheriff added. "Prevents them from climbing up the fence and going over."
Then, in a couple days, they will begin construction on a buffer fence with razor wire that will wrap around the facility.
"If they're somehow able to defeat that system, then you've got to get through the next system," Sheriff Donahue added. "For the interim, this is the answer. Long term, you got to build a jail."
There's a stark contrast between the tent facility and the main jail building, which the sheriff's office says is also dangerous because it is poorly designed, overcrowded and in need of more room for high-security beds.
"We've outgrown it," Donahue said. "What we need is housing for higher classification inmates..."
Canyon County contracted with the DLR Group to conduct a full needs assessment study on the jail as a whole. The findings will be revealed in a few months and the report with contain an analysis on long-term capacity and operational needs, expansion possibilities and solutions.
"They've already let us know there's no way to expand where we are," the sheriff said. "The people deserve a new jail."
Once the study is completed, it's up to the county commissioners to put a bond on the ballot for the public to vote on. If it passes, that bond would pay for a new facility based on the long-term needs assessment and what it recommends.
The county owns 24 acres three miles away off Highway 20/26, which the sheriff says was purchased years ago for a new jail.
"We're desperate," Donahue added. "We're in crisis situation."
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