Missoula County looks to settle ACLU jail lawsuit with outdoor compounds

Missoula County looks to settle ACLU jail lawsuit with outdoor compounds

MISSOULA — Missoula County is leaning toward settling a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana by proposing to build two outdoor compounds at its detention center on Mullan Road and hiring six more officers to staff them.

Initial cost estimates are for $172,000 for construction and $350,000 a year for salaries. The latter could come on the taxpayers’ dime.

Dale Bickell, chief administrative officer for the county, said Monday that legal counsel from Garlington, Lohn and Robinson in Montana recommended the county try to reach a settlement.

“We’ve essentially got direction from the commissioners that this is an option worth pursuing and we should get more information to see if we can’t make it work,” said Bickell.

Scott Crichton, executive director for the ACLU in Montana, said it’s premature to comment on settlement terms.

Sheriff Carl Ibsen thinks the new outdoor compounds are the best options “given the circumstances and given that outside rec is what is specified that we’re required to provide.”

“This,” Ibsen said, “is a way we can provide outside recreation.”

The ACLU filed the federal class-action lawsuit last September on behalf of three female prisoners. They claimed they and juvenile detainees don’t get the same exposure to sunlight as the men do.

The county jail, built to hold up to 396 city, county and federal prisoners, consists of three housing units. Two hold adult males, who make up the majority of the jail population. The ACLU suit said while those units give men access to fresh air and sunlight via enclosed rooms covered by mesh grates, women and juvenile prisoners in the third unit are deprived of those rights.

The complaint said one co-plaintiff had been held as a federal prisoner for five months without being outside one time.

Ibsen described the proposed additions as fenced-in compounds, one for adult men and women on the north side of the detention facility and a smaller one on the east end for juveniles.

“Right now there’s the main fence outside, then there’s an inner security fence,” Ibsen said. “These recreational areas will be another set of fencing inside that security fence.”

They will be concrete slabs with no amenities such as benches or basketball hoops.

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Ibsen didn’t know the exact dimensions of the two outdoor compounds, but said they’ll be “larger than mandated” based on square footage per prisoner.

Access to the areas will be limited to one pod at a time – 15 to 25 prisoners in the adult end, fewer in the juvenile compound. Men and women would use their compound at different times.

Ibsen said he speculated that construction cost estimates are high for a couple of reasons. One is that the architectural firm involved is certified for jail/prison architecture.

“The other is because the fencing we’re talking about would be very tall and very heavy, and we’ll be removing lawn and putting in concrete slabs,” the sheriff said. “That’s going to cost a chunk of money.”

Hiring six additional security officers, he added, “is the minimum we can get by with, as near as we can figure.”

Other options are to build one large courtyard with concrete, stone or brick walls.

“But that would be far more costly, so we’re thinking this particular way is a way to meet our legal obligations and get the best bang for the buck,” Ibsen said.

He doesn’t see the proposal as a concession that the county isn’t meeting its obligations.

“I don’t think so,” Ibsen said. “I think it’s more like recognizing the handwriting on the wall.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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