CALDWELL -- Trying to find a solution to overcrowding at the Canyon County Jail, commissioners are looking at the possibility of expanding the current building.
In a Wednesday commission meeting, the sheriff and jail staff responded with disagreement, listing numerous reasons they see potential operational, financial and legal issues.
Sheriff Kieran Donahue has told KTVB overcrowding is forcing his office, and prosecutors to recommend the release of accused and convicted suspects every single day. From drug dealers to burglars, Donahue says they routinely ask judges to help them make room by releasing people, in some cases before their sentence is complete.
County taxpayers have shot down the idea of a new jail three times. Current county commissioner, and former Canyon County Jail commander, Craig Hanson, says with the failure of bonds, they have to look for a different solution.
I believe we need a new jail. But I also believe that the public has said 'no' through three bond elections, and the percentage of those who've said 'no' has increased every time, Hanson said. I don't think anyone in this room thinks differently that we don't have to address this and make something happen. It's just who's willing to pay for it, how are we going to pay for it, and what is the best design.
Commissioners are looking at a rough idea for expanding the current jail by essentially adding four more pods where the visitor parking lot is now. The plan would add three dormitory units and one pod of individual hard cells for inmates that need to be housed separately for protection or classification reasons.
The sheriff's office gave commissioners numerous arguments against the rough expansion proposal. Donahue believes the county would open itself up to lawsuits on things like appropriate space and time for outside recreation time. The current jail is already under strict rules related to current issues brought forth in a previous lawsuit.
It's under a federal consent decree. You can't change it. You could add on to that building from here to the freeway, you still have that core building, and you can't change it. And until we walk away from that building, we're going to be under the guidelines and thumb of the ACLU. That's my opinion, Donahue said.
From an operational standpoint, Donahue says there are numerous issues with the rough proposal for expansion. Many potential problems come as a result of where the addition is situated: On the other side of jail administration, meaning booking and other offices would be sandwiched between the housing units. Donahue says additional staff would have to be brought on, and they would still have problems leading inmates and supplies like food through the building.
Having to adhere to all the Idaho jail standards and all the ACLU standards, that from an operational standpoint, is just actually unattainable under that proposal. Although the proposal could be modified, and we get that, it's not a sound practice, Donahue said.
Hanson said he recognized the concerns brought forward and particularly is concerned with the need to add more solitary or hard cells. He said after the meeting, he now realizes a need to address medical concerns is a big issue with the current design.
It's going to have some staff issues. The biggest thing is the design. That's really where the hardship comes in for, if that is feasible. The design has to be correct. Because you can't create a nightmare of tunnels, Hanson said.
Unlike when Hanson fought to pass the bonds years ago, Hanson says he is now in a different position of looking at the whole county budget, which doesn't have funding for a whole new jail now.
Now I am one of the three parties that really looks at the budget, controls the budget, and says what we're going to spend the money on, Hanson said. So that makes a big difference. Because now I'm looking at it from the perspective of the entire county, the 760 employees that we have and all of their operations, all of the funding they need to carry on business to provide services for the county.
Hanson says that without taxpayers literally buying in, he sees the situation as looking at the next option. While the sheriff's office has proposed putting money that could be used on the expansion into a capital improvement fund to build a new facility, Hanson says that's also a concern.
This particular board could say we're taking that money, the $15 million or $12 million... putting it aside for a capital campaign fund to build a new facility. Another board could come in and change their mind and say we decided we don't want to use that, Hanson said.
Donahue believes there is no way to add on to the current structure, and be compliant with rules and have a long-term solution. He hopes to educate voters more about the overcrowding issues, and why he believes expansion isn't a good option. He has not said anything specific regarding the option to run another bond issue.
There is no set next step for the project, though commissioners say the topic of jail expansion or construction will be a part of the 2015 budget setting process.