Yellowstone County voters are getting what they were promised in a jail renovation plan approved two years ago.
- The $16.9 million contract to build a new, larger unit for female inmates and expand the jail kitchen and laundry has been completed at about $500,000 under budget.
- For the $9.7 million portion of the project that required borrowing, bonds sold for an average interest rate of 2.24 percent. That rate is lower than projected and will save the county money over 20 years.
- The county will draw down its capital improvement funds to do about $3.5 million in renovation on the men’s units that typically hold close to 400 inmates altogether.
- Taxes didn’t go up to pay for the jail project.
Voters had previously rejected a property tax levy increase to pay for jail improvements. Then in the spring of 2016, Sheriff Mike Linder and county Finance Director Kevan Bryan presented a plan to renovate the 30-year-old jail that was holding double the number on inmates it was built to house — without raising taxes.
By using capital improvement funds and budgeting carefully, the county found a way to pay for needed jail upgrades from the existing tax levy. However, state law requires that the county get voter authorization to borrow more than $2 million. So the county sought approval of borrowing $9.7 million that would have to be repaid with the existing levy. County Commissioners John Ostlund, Jim Reno and Bill Kennedy were unanimous in supporting the request.
Two years later, the jail is still just as crowded, with a population of 480 inmates at midweek.
The renovation plan included a larger women’s unit because around 100 female inmates were being housed in a unit built for 38. At times, 20 women were sleeping on cots in the unit’s common area and sharing a single toilet. Female inmates have to eat meals in shifts because there aren’t enough tables and chairs to seat them all. The women’s unit was more crowded than the men’s units and didn’t allow for separation violent and nonviolent offenders as men’s units do.
The new women’s unit has space for 148 inmates.
Women weren’t the first inmates in the new unit this week because the jail needs a place to house men while the two largest men’s dorms are renovated. Linder acknowledged concern that men would be harder on the new space.
“They’ve all been advised that any damage they cause may result in additional charges,” Linder told The Gazette. “This is probably going to be the only time in a long, long time to get things done” in jail renovation.
Women will be moved into the new unit in several weeks after the work is finished on the men’s medium security dorms, Linder said.
Giving a tour of the new women’s pod last week, Linder said it will make inmates and jail staff safer. Public safety is the top concern at the jail. When The Gazette endorsed the borrowing authorization in 2016, the editorial noted that parity between housing of female and male inmates is important for fairness, safety and to avoid a civil rights lawsuit.
Linder and Bryan’s prudent, financially sound plan is fulfilling the promise to make the jail more secure and functional without raising taxes.