Jail bond: Separating prisoners tough

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

As jail standards have changed over the years, the number of prisoners the Elmore County Jail can house has continued to decline.

Originally designed for 32 prisoners, today, the jail can hold an absolute maximum of 27.

But that's under the best of circumstances, which rarely occur. Because, under state and federal law, prisoners must be segregated by the class of crime with which they have been charged or convicted, as well as by sex, age and in some cases medical condition, and under a worst-case scenario the county could wind up with no more than one person in each of the ten cell blocks it maintains.

Currently, the jail has three four-man cells, three one-man cells, two cells for prisoners held in maximum security, one six-man cell and one cell that can house four female prisoners.

When a prisoner is brought into the jail, Deputy Lynn McCallum, the jail supervisor, begins a process of classification.

First, he determines if the crime for which the person is charged involves violence. Persons charged with violent crimes must be separated from those charged with non-violent crimes.

Persons charged with murder (one at present) or convicted of murder and awaiting sentencing (two at present), must be kept isolated in a cell all their own.

Those charged with felonies must be separated from those charged with misdemeanors.

Those charged with civil offenses must be separated from those charged with criminal offenses.

Those who have been sentenced must be separated from those still awaiting trial.

Juveniles must be separated from adults (the county actually sends all juvenile offenders now to a facility in Caldwell, but until they're transported they must be separated).

Males and females must be separated.

Any prisoner with a communicable disease must be separated from the others. "Increasingly, today, we wind up with people with AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis," McCallum noted, "but even somebody with just the flu has to be separated. And frankly, those people are still a threat to everyone, because with the old air circulation system we have, all the air they breath just gets recirculated all through the building."

Ultimately, the state sets a standard for three broad categories with eight total classifications, but for McCallum, that's really just the beginning, because he has to consider the safety of his officers, the general public and the prisoners as well.

So McCallum also has to consider factors such as potential escape risks and known animosities with other prisoners (for example, putting a racist in a cell with non-whites is not considered a good idea, nor is it wise to put together two prisoners who are known to have gone up against each other in the past).

Those with behavioral problems need to be separated. "If you get somebody who's a screamer, or likes to yell insults at everyone, it doesn't take long before all the other prisoners are willing to beat the hell out of that person," he said.

McCallum also conducts a basic psychological profile of prisoners, especially focusing on any suicidal tendencies. "Losing a prisoner in the jail is a big no-no," he said.

It's been a long time since anyone died in the jail, but that doesn't mean there haven't been close calls. On more than one occasion he's discovered a prisoner hanging from a cell, but got to them in time.

But what worries him is that may not always happen. None of the cells can be seen from outside the jail, so an officer either needs to check on a potentially suicidal prisoner every five minutes or so (assuming that potential was identified in advance), or rely on other prisoners yelling out to the jailers. The proposed new jail, McCallum pointed out, would allow the officer on duty to see into every cell, improving security and safety all around.

McCallum also is constantly concerned about the safety of his officers.

The current jail, in order to meet minimum standards for prisoner square footage, forces McCallum to use the two hallways between cells as "day rooms," where prisoners can wander around, watch TV, or do other forms of recreation. Without that, one additional bunk would have to be removed from each multi-bunk cell.

But that creates two security concerns.

First, it means his officers, when they enter the jail, are immediately surrounded by the jail population. There is no "safe" area for the jailers to keep an eye on the prisoners.

Second, the hallways are fairly narrow. A prisoner who remains in lock-up can easily grab a jailer or another inmate through the bars.

"If one of them (a prisoner) grabbed a jailer and got them up against the bars, they'd pretty much be done for," said Sheriff Rick Layher.

When the current jail was originally built, prisoners weren't required to have access to sunlight and recreation. Today they are.

Layher, in one of his famous "bandaid" solutions, built an outdoor recreation area at the back of the jail that officers refer to as "the dog run" because of its resemblance in size and shape to a large dog kennel.

That gives prisoners some opportunity for outdoor recreation, but it also poses a security risk. Cigarettes, drugs, and in one case a set of wire cutters, have been known to be thrown over the fence into the compound by someone walking by in the alley behind the jail.

In order to meet standards for recreational requirements when the weather is bad, the sally port is converted to a recreation area. That's the enclosed "garage"-like area that officers use to take prisoners in and out of vehicles.

Layher said it didn't take long for prisoners to discover that several of them, working together, could force open the sally port door, so now it has to be chained down when prisoners are in the area.

Over the years, the types of prisoners in the jail have changed, as well. The county jail is the only location to hold any prisoner arrested in Elmore County by any law enforcement agency, from the sheriff's office to the city police to the FBI, BLM, INS, state police and Forest Service.

"We're not just dealing with local people anymore," Layher noted. "We're getting them from all over, especially out-of-town drug dealers. Some of them are pretty scary people. We've just been lucky so far" that a jailer hasn't been attacked and seriously injured.

Female prisoners also are something fairly new. Twenty years ago, Layher said, "we really didn't have any. I'm not sure why. Maybe we just let them go. But today, we stay pretty full" in the female cell block, and some of those female prisoners are just as violent as the worst male prisoners.

When the jail fills up, based on the separation requirements, Layher and McCallum have to start transporting prisoners to other jails in the area, most commonly the relatively new jail in Owyhee County. "It's wherever we can find a spare bed," Layher said. In one case, the only available spot was in Couer d' Alene.

It costs $45 a day to house a prisoner in some other jail, plus whatever medical costs are required. And it means an officer must be released from other duties serving the local community to transport that prisoner to and from Elmore County.

Every time a prisoner's lawyer wants to talk to that prisoner, even if it's just for a few minutes, a deputy has to go get that person, bring them back here, then transport them back to the "remote" jail where they're being housed.

The proposed new jail would solve virtually all of those problems and, at least initially, have room for the county to be making $45 a day housing other counties' prisoners, rather than spending $45 a day sending them off to other jails (plus the transportation costs).

A new jail would not be a luxury suite for prisoners, by any means, "but we really do have to be humane," said McCallum.

"I know," Layher said, "that some people think if conditions are bad, that's just part of the punishment. We shouldn't be coddling them."

But, Layher noted, almost everyone, at some time or another in their lives, usually has a relative or friend they know wind up in jail.

"I love these people who don't have any problems if the conditions are bad, until say, their grandson winds up in jail, and then all of a sudden they're complaining to me about how things need to be fixed."

Layher also pointed out that it's not just hard-core criminals who wind up in his jail. Sometimes, a normally law-abiding citizen can find themselves behind bars. Maybe they accidentally put something in their pocket while shopping and walked out with it (shoplifting), or they got into an argument with someone and pushed them (battery), got caught taking a leak beside their car on the interstate (public urination) or had one too many at a New Year's Party and tried to drive home (DUI).

Except for the DUI, even if convicted of the charge, the person wouldn't be sentenced to any jail time, but they have to be held until they're arraigned. If they get arrested after 5 p.m. on Friday, and can't bond out, they could get held until 9 a.m. Monday, when the judges next hear arraignments.

"And I hate to say it, but it's true," Layher said, "sometimes you wind up with an officer with an attitude, who for some reason decides you need to be hauled in for something most other officers would just give you a citation for.

"Now, suddenly, you're in the jail," facing first-hand all the current problems of overcrowding, security and safety.

"A jail is never a good place to be," he said, "but it doesn't have to be dangerous to everyone who walks into it."

Layher and McCallum said anyone who wants to tour the jail can do so by calling them and making arrangements for a tour.

The $7.5 million jail bond proposal will go to the public May 24. The cost to the taxpayers is estimated to be less than $6 per month for a person owning a $100,000 home. "That's not too much to provide some humane conditions and give everyone in this county a little more safety and security," Layher said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: