By the end of the month, Custer County will be taking jail prisoners to another county's facility to avoid a lawsuit threatened by the Montana American Civil Liberties Union.
After visiting the Miles City detention center and finding what it described as “extremely egregious” conditions related to health and safety, ACLU attorneys notified the county that it had until Oct. 8 to find a new place for prisoners.
“If a solution is not found by then, we may sue,” Amy Cannata wrote on the ACLU blog on Aug. 29.
Sheriff Tony Harbaugh said that after the warning, the county commissioners voted unanimously to begin transporting prisoners. Though the county disagreed with some of the ACLU’s findings, “as a long-term facility, it would be pretty hard to defend,” he said.
Part of the jail is 108 years old. The new part was built below ground in 1975.
Harbaugh said the county had been exploring options months before the ACLU sent warning letters on Aug. 14 and 23. He said he has been meeting with a citizen group since January, when it took on the jail as a priority. The county commissioners asked the group, the Miles City Area Economic Development Council Planning Committee, to serve as a jail steering committee.
The sheriff said the committee was already working on obtaining a grant for a needs assessment.
“My idea was that we do things the right way — carefully and cautiously,” he said.
But with the deadline imposed by the ACLU, some options have been removed, he said.
The ACLU contends that the problems are so serious that they need to be fixed immediately.
“We would like to emphasize that simply committing to putting a bond on the ballot in the next election will not be sufficient,” the ACLU’s Aug. 14 letter said. “Immediate action needs to be taken to insure that human beings are not housed in your facility.”
In its Aug. 23 letter, the ACLU alleged that conditions at the jail constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
The letter said those conditions included “the lack of ventilation, lack of recreation, fresh air, outdoor exercise and natural light, as well as extremely unsanitary conditions, including extensive mold and unclean living areas, a falling ceiling, dirty blankets, towels and clothing, and numerous extremely egregious safety and fire issues immediately apparent.”
The ACLU also charged that medical services at the jail are inadequate.
In the face of a potentially costly lawsuit, the county decided that transporting prisoners to another county was the best option.
Harbaugh said he did not want to identify where the prisoners were headed because of potential threats to the safety of officers and prisoners. The jail usually houses between 12 and 15 prisoners and can handle up to 18.
Transporting prisoners will be costly, but Harbaugh said he has no idea how big the tab will be.
To try to keep the number of transports down, the old jail will serve as a temporary holding facility, the sheriff said. Prisoners arrested at midnight, for instance, could spend the night in jail and wait for the banks to open the next morning so they could post bail, he explained. Keeping the jail open as short-term facility will also be more convenient for locals who are arrested, he said.
All seven full-time jail personnel will remain on duty, keeping the holding facility open 24 hours a day. Those officers will also be charged with helping move prisoners.
Harbaugh said he doesn’t know what the final solution will be but said the county commissioners are preparing to address the issue. A lot of discussion and public input will be part of the process, he said.
“I hope something continues to move along expeditiously,” the sheriff said. “Taking officers off the street to transport prisoners is not a good use of officer time.”
Scott Crichton, executive director of Montana ACLU, said Custer County’s jail isn’t the only detention facility it was keeping its eye on, but it is the one with most immediate need.
He said the ACLU had been trying without success to establish uniform statewide jail standards. Without uniform standards, litigation is the only way to address jail deficiencies, he said.
Yellowstone County built a new jail in 1987 after the ACLU filed a successful federal lawsuit over conditions in the existing jail, which was then located in the courthouse.