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'It's tough': How a nationwide jail dilemma is unfolding in Yellowstone County
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'It's tough': How a nationwide jail dilemma is unfolding in Yellowstone County

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Earlier this month, one of the more than 500 people in custody at Yellowstone County Detention Facility tried leaping from the second floor of his cell block. He had some bedding fashioned into a noose around his neck. A detention officer, one of around 50 staffing the jail, pulled him back in time.

With those who are incarcerated seven times more likely to threaten suicide or self harm than those who are out, according to national data on America’s jails, keeping inmates from hurting themselves or others is one of several expectations for employees at YCDF.

For years, however, jail administrators in Yellowstone County have been caught in the same vice squeezing detention facilities nationwide. It has too many inmates and not enough jailers.

Lt. Robert Lester at YCDF

A holding cell is photographed at Yellowstone County Detention Facility is photographed on Thursday.

“It’s tough, but we do the best we can,” said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.

Around the country, the outbreak of COVID-19 led a drastic decline in jail populations, according to reporting from the Associated Press and the non-profit Marshall Project. As measures to prevent the spread of the virus subsided, orders from local judges to keep jails from crowding were relaxed, and bookings into custody rebounded. In some instances, jail populations surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Coinciding with the pandemic and the subsequent nationwide rise in jail populations, law enforcement agencies experienced a historic wave of retirements and resignations. In June 2021, the think-tank Police Executive Review Forum published an analysis of staffing levels at nearly 200 agencies over the previous year. The responding agencies reported an overall 18% increase in resignation rates, and retirement rates at 45%.

Since the start of the decade, insufficient resources in Montana’s criminal justice apparatus have resulted in federal inquires, lawsuits and deaths. In March, the Lee Montana State News Bureau reported 38 people in custody at Lake County’s jail filed a class action lawsuit against the county, alleging dangerously unsanitary conditions, a lack of health care access and refusal of religious practices.

Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge suspended visitations at the end of October due to a chronic workforce shortage. Montana State Hospital, tasked with treating patients in the criminal justice system, had its federal reimbursement pulled earlier this year in the wake of mismanagement leading to the deaths of four patients. Gianforte, Lee Newspapers reported, has proposed overhauling the state’s prison and hospital with the estimated $1 billion surplus in a preview of his budget on Nov. 10.

Guards at YCDF started last week with 583 inmates in the 434-bed facility. Undersheriff Sam Bofto, who was the jail’s commander from 2013-2018, said as many as 600 people have been in custody at YCDF at one time. In his experience with the jail and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, Bofto can only remember a single week where all of the staff positions at the jail were filled.

“But it hasn’t put us where we can’t keep the inmates or the guards safe. We’re not at breaking point. We’re very resilient,” Bofto said.

Lt. Robert Lester at YCDF

Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office Lt. Robert Lester is photographed at Yellowstone County Detention Facility on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Lt. Robert Lester took over as jail commander in the past month. Along with ensuring every guard carries life-saving naloxone, staffing shortages are Lester's number one priority. Rather than “body-filling,” hiring anyone who might apply for the job, Lester said he’s interested in dropping turnover rates and keeping the new guards long-term.

“We’re hiring,” he said.

The jail swelling with inmates and a shortage of guards is nothing new, Sheriff Linder said. The vast majority of those in custody at YCDF, he said, have been charged with felonies and are waiting for their cases to be processed through Yellowstone County District Court. He told the Gazette on Wednesday the same thing he’s said at previous public safety meetings.

“When the court system gets plugged up, it’s like a bottleneck,” he said. “If you’re going to commit a crime, you should be through the system, in my opinion, in less than a year... Jails are not designed for long-term holding. That’s not what a jail is for.”

According to the jail roster published Nov. 17, 34 people have been in custody at YCDF since before November 2021. Five people have been at the jail since 2020, and two since March 2019.

That same day, 20 people sentenced to time in the Montana Department of Corrections were still waiting to be transported to MSP or Montana Women’s Prison. At least one inmate has been waiting for transportation since August.

Lt. Robert Lester at YCDF

The front of Yellowstone County Detention Facility is seen on Thursday.

In September, two men escaped from YCDF by allegedly knocking out the window to their cell and climbing out. Surveillance footage showed the two running across the jail's property and climbing a fence to flee the area. Billings police arrested them the next day, along with three other men accused of assisting them in their flight from law enforcement. 

“I couldn’t say [overcrowding] wasn’t part of it. Would it have happened if we weren’t overcrowded? Could have. I put this on us though. We probably could have prevented it. That’s why we’re doing more trainings, more assessments. I said it right from the beginning, that was 100% on us,” Linder said.

Outside of the jail, attorneys and lawmakers are drafting legislation to stem the flow of people into jails around the state, and expedite criminal justice procedures. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito joined the Criminal Justice Oversight Council in the lead-up to the 2023 Montana State Legislature. The council is a group of public safety stakeholders who study the implementation of criminal justice reforms in Montana, and request legislation through the Law and Justice Interim Committee.

Twito, in an interview with the Gazette on Thursday, echoed Linder in saying that building a larger jail would only result in more inmates and eventually cost taxpayers more money to staff and maintain. In addressing overcrowding in the state’s jails, particularly YCDF, Twito said the council has drafted two bills. One revises the state’s definition of a persistent felony offender who is under parole supervision, the other creates a pilot program for diverting non-violent offenders from the courtroom and, ideally, toward treatment.

Lt. Robert Lester at YCDF

A holding cell is photographed at Yellowstone County Detention Facility is photographed on Thursday, Nov. 17.

“One of the things [the council] is beginning to track here in Yellowstone County is why is our jail so damn full,” Twito said. “Well, one of the reasons is case resolution times, the time it takes from arrest until the person’s case is resolved, has been taking longer and longer. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons can be that some of the more difficult folks that have a lot of matters to resolve, they tend to sit in the jail longer.”

Potentially changing the state’s definition of a persistent felony offender under parole supervision, Twito said, would give prosecutors another tool to incentivize plea bargaining.

The pilot program, according to the latest draft reviewed in August, would allow those charged with offenses like theft or drug possession to ask the court to enter treatment within 10 days of being arraigned. If approved by the court, they can enter into a supervised treatment plan that, when completed, would end with all of the criminal documents related to their crime purged from the record.

“You need to identify these people [who qualify], and assess them, and you need to do it quickly. You can’t charge them and then wait nine months,” Twito said.

Lt. Robert Lester at YCDF

Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office Lt. Robert Lester is photographed at Yellowstone County Detention Facility on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Where funding for the program would come from has not yet been determined, Twito said, and the council is still trying to figure out which jurisdictions will host the pilot program.

Before lawmakers meet next year, Linder and jail administrators have implemented programs that address addiction and mental health care. Those include access to telehealth sessions with psychiatrists, and a recently launched pilot program aimed at treating opioid addiction through medication.

“A lot of people [in YCDF] probably don’t belong in a jail,” Sheriff Linder said. “They belong somewhere where they can get mental health treatment.”

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