Sheriff: Overcrowded Idaho jail is a ‘powder keg’
Until the county gets a bigger jail the sheriff is trying small changes, like serving fresh fruit more often and expanding board game privileges, to keep the peace
By Eric Goodell
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Four years ago, Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter told county commissioners that the situation at the jail wasn’t good.
“If we don’t do something in that facility, it’s a powder keg, gentleman,” Carter warned.
The reason? Overcrowding.
And a potentially explosive situation remains.
Through the last several years, the jail has been housing about 300 inmates in 254 beds.
Inmates without a bed sleep in plastic “boats” that hold a mattress. It’s a less-than-ideal situation, however, it keeps inmates off the floor.
In addition, the county has moved some inmates to other county jails, but finding room can be difficult and expensive.
The problem is obvious, Twin Falls County Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs said.
“You have too many people committing crimes and too small a jail,” Loebs said.
And even though finding available space in the jail or surrounding jails can be tricky, he said inmates who pose threats to society aren’t going to be given a free pass.
With the overcrowding comes accompanying concerns of staff and inmate safety.
A former inmate, who had spent a day locked up on two separate occasions, told the Times-News he was once assigned to a cell that housed 29 inmates — although it was originally meant for just 12. The 29 inmates shared a single toilet.
Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Hogan couldn’t verify that figure but confirmed that, at times, cells have been at double capacity.
Hogan and jail administer Capt. Doug Hughes said they understand the tensions overcrowding brings to inmates, along with potential dangers for jailers.
“It’s a tough situation on both sides of the fence,” Hughes said. “Everybody likes their personal space. it doesn’t matter whether you are in jail or not.”
Inmates can’t be assigned to cellblocks in a haphazard way. Care must be taken to put inmates with similar classifications together.
“You certainly wouldn’t want to put someone accused of a low-class felony with an actual violent felon,” Hughes said.
Those requirements create additional pressure to find extra room for inmates.
Finding a solution
When the sheriff spoke to county commissioners in 2019, a $25 million bond issue to pay for a 300-bed jail expansion at what was then the juvenile detention facility on Wright Avenue was in the works.
The bond issue failed, securing 58% of the vote but falling short of the needed two-thirds supermajority, although some of the basics of that plan have either been completed or remain in play. Juveniles who run afoul of the law are now housed at Twin Falls County West and that has left an empty facility on Wright Avenue that commissioners are still eyeing as a possible second site to house adult inmates.
Don’t expect anything to happen overnight. County commissioners are in the process of hiring an architect that would give them a master plan for the expansion, Commission Chair Don Hall said.
“This will help us develop that timeline with the funds that we have available for that expansion,” Hall said.
The initial plan would be to create a facility with 150 beds, with the potential to allow for further expansion. The Wright Avenue building would require renovation due to different security requirements regarding housing adults compared to juveniles and additional construction at the site would allow for more beds.
And there is the issue of how to pay for it.
Commissioners previously allotted some $30 million — $20 million that was saved up plus $10 million of COVID money — for expanding the county judicial building along Shoshone Avenue North. For the jail, County Commissioner Jack Johnson said the commission hoped to find more money from the county’s contingency fund, combined with federal funds, to assist with completing the first phase.
Commissioners aren’t looking to pass a bond, saying taxpayers are already struggling with high taxes.
Johnson likened a bond proposal to a “worst-case scenario.”
And, although having two jail sites in the same county might present a few obstacles of its own, it would still be better than today’s situation, Hogan said.
Financially, expansion of the current jail isn’t feasible, officials say, because of the county’s plans to expand the judicial building.
Plus, it wouldn’t be a good look for Twin Falls to have the jail so close to Shoshone Street, Hall said.
Although there is talk of starting the expansion on Wright Avenue, Hall said he expects the downtown jail to be there for many years to come. He said it is still functional, and building jails isn’t cheap.
“We have done everything we can to make conditions as livable as possible within the (old) facility,” Hogan said, “and give everyone their rights and privileges that can be afforded their classifications.”
As jail lieutenant, Hogan has the difficult position of finding beds for the county’s inmates.
There are only so many places to squeeze in the “boats,” he said, and the beds have been fit in common areas and hallways where they were never intended.
Hogan is on the phone almost every workday, talking to other counties to see if they have bed space.
“It’s a daily task,” Hogan said. “Every day when I come to work, one of the things I do is attempt to move inmates to another facility or attempt to move as many inmates out of here as possible to state correctional facilities or other counties.
Jerome County’s facility is one they depend on, and the sheriff’s office has a contract for 25 beds there, with Twin Falls County paying that county $75 per day per inmate. That jail, a relatively short distance away, might not be so bad, but deputies also drive inmates to counties as far as 175 miles away in Jefferson County in eastern Idaho.
About the jail
Over the years the jail, officially called the James R. Munn Adult Detention Facility, has seen increased inmate numbers.
When built in 1989, Hughes said it was a modern facility, with its wagon wheel design with the control room in the center and cell blocks running out from it.
Hall himself started a job with the Twin Falls Police Department in October 1988, just shortly before the current jail was built, when the jail was on the fourth floor of the courthouse.
Upon the new facility opening, most hoped the jail would last forever.
“But our population changed,” Hall said.
Hughes, who has been a jail administrator for the past 16 years, said overcrowding has been a growing concern for the past eight years.
Besides the failed bond issue, the sheriff’s office completed an addition in 2021 to make additional space. It was touted as 90 new beds, but a couple of dilapidated units at the jail had to be removed, Hogan said, which brought the number down to about 50 new beds.
The 33-year-old jail is showing some age as well. Newer jails have locker rooms, Hughes said, but when this facility was built there wasn’t a need for that. Jailers came to work, did their job and left. The break room for jailers is basically a walk-through area.
That can make conditions less than ideal for jailers, who might put in 12-hour shifts. The jail isn’t fully staffed, to boot. Hogan said he likes to have 10 jailers on a shift, but sometimes has had as few as five.
“It is very challenging,” he said.
Occasionally, the department has had to pull in other deputies who have had previous experience working there to help out.
The kitchen, built to prepare 150 meals at a time for inmates, Hughes said, is doing well to provide food for larger numbers. Other signs of the jail being outgrown include its medical facilities. Even the room where inmates leave their personal belongings when they are first booked had to be expanded.
Who’s in jail?
Public safety plays a vital role in who is listed on the jail roster.
Vastly more people are given court summonses than are arrested and sent to jail, Loebs said, but when the crime is serious enough, that person is going to jail.
“The question for prosecutors and judges is not whether the jail is overcrowded,” he said, “because that is a secondary question. The question is whether the person is a danger to society...
“If he’s a danger to society, then he is going to be told to go to jail whether or not the jail is full and they have to find another place for him.”
The situation at the county jail “has almost nothing to do with people serving a sentence,” Loebs continued.
At the end of July, only 21 inmates were serving misdemeanor sentences, but another 36 inmates were already sentenced and were waiting for the Department of Corrections to transport them to state prison. In addition, 131 inmates were waiting for felony trials and 23 were awaiting misdemeanor trials.
Numbers from July also show that it can sometimes be difficult for a person to stay out of jail once they are released on probation. Of the inmates who were in jail at the end of July, 103 were accused of probation violations due to a previous felony.
Another six inmates were back in custody, accused of violating terms of prior release.
“Between court compliance and probation violations, they are given a chance to stay out of the jail and they blow it,” Loebs said.
And once someone violates probation, they often are not allowed to immediately bail out.
“They have already been convicted of felonies and now have failed to abide by their probation,” Loebs explained.
During the 2019 jail bond vote, some critics alleged that many inmates were incarcerated due to being caught with a small amount of marijuana.
Those allegations “were never true,” Loebs said.
Instead, a sampling of people listed on the jail roster shows some people who violated probation were previously convicted in incidents involving hard drugs including methamphetamine and fentanyl.
There has to be some compromise between judges, the prosecutor and the sheriff’s office in releasing some people with borderline offenses.
“But that is still a small number,” he said.
Controlling the tension
Until something else is built, Hogan said jail staff does what they can to ease tensions among inmates.
Sometimes it can be as simple as providing extra fruit during a meal.
It’s not always successful, he said, referring to an uptick in physical altercations in the jail. Some altercations endangered deputies, but they were broken up without escalating into something large.
One of the latest incidents occurred in late August when three inmates were charged with rioting after quickly leaving a jail cell and physically assaulting another inmate, records say. Whether the incident had anything to do with tensions from overcrowding, it’s hard to say.
It could have just been a bunch of inmates intent on committing a crime, Hughes said.
But to reduce the number of those types of incidents, Hogan said the jail has changed a few policies aimed at better keeping the peace.
Fresh fruit is served more often and board game privileges have also been expanded to inmates, depending on their classifications. It’s an effort to keep inmates actively engaged in something productive instead of negative behavior.
Also, a better selection is available at the commissary, where inmates are allowed to purchase items.
Media has done multiple stories through the years about overcrowding, but Hogan believes most of the public doesn’t know about the situation at the jail.
“I’ve been working in the Twin Falls County Jail for about 16 years and our facilities are just not up to date with the population,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
But word does get out among some of the population. Inmates tell their families about conditions but it still doesn’t get out on a large-scale basis.
But Hogan and Hughes said they are optimistic something to lighten the overcrowding can be done soon.
“I hear from jail staff all the time, that we would like to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” Hogan said.
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