Mineral County officials met once again on Friday, April 26 to discuss the the Mineral County Detention Center’s fate — following its closure in February due to a detention officer shortage. The jail’s future remains a mystery; however, officials are getting closer to a decision, which could mean finally having the ability to hire the minimum number of officers. Other alternatives include using the jail as overflow for Lake County inmates or leasing the facility to Community, Counseling and Correctional Services, Incorporated (CCCS), a private, non-profit jail corporation. Staffing officers for the 28-bed jail is the county’s ideal option to reopen the facility but finding eligible applicants and retaining them is a problem. There are currently four eligible applicants to begin the hiring process, however they have not gone through a background check or an interview. The detention center also doesn’t have a supervisor at this time. “I don’t want to start hiring people if we don’t have supervisor,” County Commissioner Laurie Johnston said. “But you can’t open a jail without detention officers.” Officials discussed starting the initial process, meaning they could interview potential officers but couldn’t guarantee them a job. “I don’t want to put somebody in there dealing with inmates if they don’t know what they’re doing”, said Johnston. County Attorney Ellen Donohue suggested waiting to hire a supervisor, but potential detention officers won’t have a job until there’s a supervisor. “It’s a ripple effect,” Donohue said. If the county finds their five minimum detention officers, the budget becomes an increasing issue because Missoula detention officers would need to train new officers. “I don’t have it in my budget,” Sheriff Mike Boone said. “Their detention officers are making $36 an hour.”
OFFICIALS ALSO suggested a potential mill levy, which would increase property taxes. “That’s a whole nother thing because raising taxes is hard,” Donohue said. She says the public needs to be educated before introducing a levy, and the county would need to do some serious number crunching. Mineral County Resource Coalition member Diane Magone also suggested providing education on a levy first. “If I didn’t know what was going on, I would say no,” Magone said.
Currently, Boone sends inmates to the Sanders County Jail in Thompson Falls and the Missoula County Jail. Mineral County must pay $69.50 to Sanders County and $108 per day to Missoula County facilities to house an inmate. Sanders County has eight Mineral County inmates and Missoula has two as of April 26.
Mineral County paid a total of $20,000 to Sanders and Mineral counties to house their inmates in March. County Commissioner Roman Zylawy said it costs $28,000 in only wages to run the jail with six officers.
Public safety also becomes a concern when the county lacks a jail. Deputies are forced to transport inmates to Sanders County Jail when they arrest people, leaving fewer deputies to patrol their own county. “Last night two deputies had to run up to Sanders with three prisoners and one highway patrolman was left to patrol,” Boone said. Leasing the facility to CCCS is still an option and Donohue is in contact with their CEO, Mike Thatcher. Since CCCS is a large organization in corrections, Donohue hopes this could open up a pool for potential employees from the Missoula area. “I’d really like to get Mike Thatcher here if that’s something they’d be interested in,” Donohue said. “If not, I just want to be able to say we checked into that, let’s move on.” Donohue has also spoken to Lori Thibodeau, a Lake County parole officer who mentioned sending their overflow inmates to Mineral County with their own transport officer. This would help offset costs, but the problem remains with lack of detention officers to run the jail.
WHEREVER THE detention center’s fate lies, it will cost Mineral County. “To break even would be amazing,” Donohue said. “As a community we understand that we want our community safe, and that comes at a cost unfortunately.”
“The bottom line is there isn’t a jail in the state of Montana that makes money. Plain and simple,” Boone said. “It’s an alligator, it’s always gonna be an alligator. I find it very hard to believe that you’d break even.” Mineral County officials will hold another detention center meeting on Friday, May 10 at 10 a.m. The meeting is open to the public.