Capt. Alan Hughes opened a jail door slowly to ensure he didn't strike the inmate resting on the floor on the other side. Just outside the dual-purpose room where attorneys meet with clients and jailers take fingerprints, the inmate clung to his blanket as he attempted to nap on a thin cot. 

Hughes has given more than 100 local residents tours of the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center. Officials wanted voters to see the crowded conditions in the jail, which is the subject of a $4 million annual levy on this year's ballots. 

While squeezing through a cramped hallway past another inmate during one such tour, Hughes was asked about the safety of using the library to house inmates. 

"This whole place is dangerous," he responded. 

The library also doubles as a hearing room for remote court appearance via television screens. 

Recently, jailers counted four hours the library was used for its initial purpose. It was a short-lived rarity.

"We were jazzed," Hughes said. 

Patrol officers have started to ticket people for certain misdemeanors, with the exceptions of driving under the influence and domestic assault, instead of booking them into jail due to the lack of space. For the most part, the jail is reserved for felony offenses.  

Perpetual overcrowding at the jail limits the ability to segregate inmates to avoid potential conflicts. This is especially true for women inmates, who make up about 30 percent of the inmate population. One pod contains all of the females. As a result, a convicted double murderer has been bunked next to a teenager suspected of driving under the influence.

Jail workers say the lack of space at the facility makes inmates antsy and increasingly irritated. This leads to concerns about the safety of staff and inmates. Officials have noted a bump in the numbers of attacks on detention officers, in addition to inmates fighting one another. 

When asked about the last time jail conditions contributed to threats or violence, Cpl. John Looney said an inmate threatened to kill him that shift. 

"We have to deal with them at their worst," Looney said while preparing to leave the jail for the day. 

One of the six-cell pods had to be placed on lock-down last week after a couple of older inmates were attempting to intimidate some newer ones. 

Some areas were meant to be used as a drunk tank, not long-term housing. 

"Now, it's sleep it off for a month or two," Hughes said. 

"Our hope is to not have anyone sleeping on the floors," he added.

Built in 1985, the jail was made to house 54 inmates but was later retrofitted to include 80 beds. As of Saturday morning, the county was holding 80 inmates (71 for felonies and nine for misdemeanors) in the local jail and paying other counties to house an additional 33. 

The county paid an estimated $250,000 this year to house overflow inmates in other counties. That doesn't include inmate medical costs, transport costs and the time it takes officers off the streets to drive the offenders to and from court appearances. 

Currently, only the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center on Breckenridge Avenue is used to incarcerate inmates. With 50.01 percent in favor and 49.99 percent opposed, voters have already approved a $6.5 million general obligation bond to transform all three floors of the facility into jail space, which would make room for 154 inmates. 

However, the remodel can't take place without the companion levy that voters shot down.

Hughes said the jail is currently out of compliance with federal standards and the county will likely be sued if the current conditions continue, which is part of the reason officials decided to give the companion levy another shot this year. 

The 15-year levy would fund operations, maintenance and improvements to inmate mental health care.

Most of the funding, roughly $2.5 million, would provide for new staff, including 33 new detention officer positions at a starting wage of $17.48 an hour. Not all of those jobs would be filled immediately, Hughes added. 

Advocates for the levy say the jail is not only overcrowded but understaffed. Each shift has three detention officers right now. 

At full staff, the jail currently boasts 25 total officers, including those who do transportation and court security.

The levy would increase the property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by $42.86 annually, while a home valued at $200,000 would have an $85.72 increase in its tax bill.

The project would displace the offices of the Helena Police Department and the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office. Officials have not yet determined where the law enforcement offices would go and how much it would cost to house them if the Law Enforcement Center is converted into jail space.

While there is no known group campaigning against the jail levy, some have questioned whether the county is asking voters for too much. 

"To me, why they need $4 million to take care of the same amount of inmates, I've asked that several times and they can't explain it," said Joe Dooling, who chairs the Lewis and Clark County GOP but said he was not speaking on behalf of the group. 

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said officials have already scaled back their plans for the jail several times, and he does not see a way to meet the county's needs with any less funding. 

Independent Record editor Jesse Chaney contributed to this report. 


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