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Idaho jail seeks $49M expansion amid overcrowding issues, rising population

“The more people, the more tensions, the more risk for individuals to fight, to create other issues in our facility,” Ada County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Shem McCulloch said

Ada County Jail

A cot-style sleeping arrangement referred to as a boat is set up on the floor of dorm 6 of Pod B at the Ada County Jail, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. The area that day housed about 100 men, which is over its capacity. To accommodate more inmates, extra cot-style beds called boats have been added to the housing unit.

Sarah A. Miller/TNS

By Ian Max Stevenson, Alex Brizee
The Idaho Statesman

ADA COUNTY, Idaho — In the Ada County Jail’s arrestee intake area, boxes of paper supplies, kitchen equipment and stored food line walls and pallets on the concrete floor.

The makeshift warehouse is one sign of the cramped environment at the jail, which leaders want to remedy by borrowing millions of dollars to expand its footprint.

For years, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office has argued that it needs more room at the jail, to allow people to spread out and to improve services in its kitchen, storage area and booking center.

Like other entities in the county, the jail has felt the Boise area’s rapid population growth. The number of people incarcerated is now often higher than the maximum capacity the jail’s dormitories are built for, forcing some incarcerated people to sleep on cots on the floor.

“The more people, the more tensions, the more risk for individuals to fight, to create other issues in our facility,” Shem McCulloch, a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office Jail Services Bureau, told the Idaho Statesman .

That predicament has led the county to put forward a plan to enlarge portions of the jail to provide relief for overcrowding. The proposal would require borrowing $49 million — a sum that requires voter approval and is on the Election Day ballots of every Ada County voter.

In an interview, Sheriff Matt Clifford said the county doesn’t “have a lot of relief” on the horizon for its elevated population if the bond fails to get the approval of two-thirds of voters. Programs that allow people in police custody to stay out of the jail through alternative sentencing are no longer able to keep the jail’s population below its capacity, he said.

“We don’t have a big Plan B, because our Plan B for the last 15 years has been the programs that keep our people out of jail,” Clifford said. “And now we’re running out of Plan B.”

What areas of the jail need more space?

When people are arrested, they’re taken to the jail and booked. During a tour, jail officials told the Statesman that the booking area is often crowded. It doubles as a makeshift overflow storage area for food and paper supplies.

“We’ve had to find nooks and crannies to put additional stock, and that is starting to fill up our sally port and make less space for parking,” McCulloch said. A sally port is an exit area for a fortified structure.

That situation causes security concerns.

“Early in the morning when we do court runs, we have a bus in here, and 10 cars just piled in here,” McCulloch said. With the planned expansion, the jail would have an improved transport area “for courts, doctor appointments, whatever it may be, in a whole new section.”

Warehouse space would increase to 11,000 square feet from 800, according to jail officials. The jail has over half a dozen rented storage units throughout the county to hold extra supplies that officials can’t fit onsite. Officials expect that more onsite storage would allow the jail to buy more food in bulk and save money.

New equipment in the kitchen would make preparation of the 4,000 meals served every day more efficient. The upsizing would also add a couple of new laundry machines.

Outside of the jail, the county’s proposal would add a new connection to nearby Allumbaugh Street , allowing officials to redirect deliveries. The county bought land from Darigold , a dairy cooperative, last year to allow for the new entrance.

Ada County arrests decline

The expansion would also add 294 beds to the jail’s existing 1,116. Clifford said just because they hope to add beds doesn’t mean they “want to fill beds.”To run the jail safely and effectively, the Sheriff’s Office said, the maximum number of people in custody should be 949, but the population surpasses that most days.

Over the last year, the jail had an average of 1,001 residents, according to statistics from the sheriff’s office. On Monday, Oct. 30, the jail had 1,005 people in custody. Seven of the eight regular dorms were over 100% of capacity, and 40 people were sleeping on cots.

Despite the jail’s overcrowding, the number of arrests throughout Ada County has declined in the last 10 years. In 2022, law enforcement agencies throughout the county made 10,495 arrests compared with 15,065 in 2012, according to Idaho State Police’s Crime in Idaho reports.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail was overpopulated. In 2020 and 2021, the jail population took a large dive because of the pandemic, but now the population is back to pre-COVID levels.

In 2018, the jail’s average population was over 1,000, which matches the population levels the jail is seeing today.

Units for vulnerable populations and offenders who are classified as requiring maximum security are well below capacity. Clifford said someone who is incarcerated for a low-level crime shouldn’t be housed in the same cell as someone accused of a violent felony, and the most violent people often are best left alone in cells built for two.

Clifford said it’s a “privilege” to live in the dorm housing. Even though some people in dorms must sleep on cots, they are still able to have more freedoms — like less-restricted access to the phones, tablets and commissary — than people in cells have.

How much do officials want from taxpayers?

The county has spent $3.5 million to buy the land to expand Allumbaugh Street and plan for the expansion. The entire project is expected to cost $69.6 million.

The county has $17.1 million in a construction fund to also spend on the project, in addition to the $49 million needed through the bond.

When local governments sell bonds, they become liable for paying back the money they have borrowed plus interest.

The $49 million bond, at current rates, is expected to accrue $22.7 million in interest over the 20-year bond life. That totals $71.7 million the county and taxpayers will need to pay back to creditors.

The county estimates that paying for the full bond will cost taxpayers $3.60 for each $100,000 of taxable value on their property, per year. For an average homeowner in the county, that is less than $15 per year.

During a September meeting, County Clerk Trent Tripple cautioned commissioners about using all of the county’s construction fund to pay for the jail expansion.

Tripple said the county often uses leftover money in those accounts to pay for other long-term projects. Using all of that money for the jail could mean that other projects get delayed. Tripple recommended the county increase the amount to be borrowed from $49 million to $53 or $54 million, leaving behind a few million in the county’s construction budget.

“The county has lots of needs, the jail being one of them.” Tripple said.

The commissioners did not discuss or adopt his recommendations.

Could the sheriff decrease the number of people held in jail?

Critics have pushed back against the Sheriff’s Office, asking authorities to release people who are incarcerated on low-level drug crimes to create more bed space. Clifford said his office has already done that.

“It’s a misnomer that those people are what’s clogging up the jail,” Clifford said. “They’re just not in there.”

Of the roughly 1,000 people in jail on Monday, Oct. 30, 12% were there for misdemeanor charges and 88% for felonies. Clifford said “quite a few” of the people jailed were for drug-related offenses.

Most people in the jail haven’t been convicted and are awaiting trial or a decision on how to proceed with their cases — though some misdemeanor offenders who have been convicted are awaiting sentencing. Others are completing their sentences.

Anyone convicted of a felony would complete the sentence from state prison, but transfers by the Idaho Department of Correction are often delayed, county officials have said. In 2019, Ada County sued the Department of Correction, accusing the agency of “warehousing” people in the jail. As of Wednesday, 147 people had been convicted of felonies but were awaiting transfer to a state prison, data from the Sheriff’s Office showed.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, released a report in 2019 that focused on reducing “unnecessary jail expansion.”

The organization pointed toward several steps counties can take to reduce their incarcerated population, including directing people with mental illness or substance abuse disorders toward treatment programs or creating alternative programs for people convicted for misdemeanors and low-level crimes.

“When someone is saddled with a criminal record that makes it even harder for them to get back on their feet,” Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, told the Statesman by phone.

Clifford said the Sheriff’s Office works to keep non-violent low-level crime offenders out of jail, instead getting them quickly into alternative programs.

About 2,000 people are supervised by the Sheriff’s Office outside of the jail. They are in a mix of programs including pretrial release, alternative sentencing, the sheriff’s labor detail, misdemeanor probation, house arrest or a community transition center.

The transition center has 108 beds for people serving court time, and allows residents to get jobs or attend classes.

“We supervise twice as many people outside the walls as we do inside the walls,” Clifford said.

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