While proponents of a proposed levy for the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center say it will address overcrowding and improve safety, critics argue it fails to address a system of mass incarceration.

Nearly 100 people packed the Labor Temple on Wednesday night for a public forum on the jail levy. Voters will decide via a mail-in-ballot due Nov. 7 whether they support a $4 million annual operations and maintenance levy.  

If passed, the levy would raise taxes on homes valued at $200,000 by $85 a year. In 2016, voters approved a bond to renovate the jail, but they rejected the operations and maintenance levy. Without that, the jail is unable to staff a jail with more beds.

As of now, bunk beds have been built to accommodate more inmates and some are held in holding rooms without a bathroom. If they need to go to the bathroom, they have to bang on the door for a guard to come get them. Some say this is unfair to the inmate and can also risk the safety of detention officers more frequently.

The forum was sponsored by the Helena Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution Helena, a progressive action group inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders and affiliated with the national organization.

Proponents at the forum on Wednesday night included:

  • Curt Chisholm — Citizens Advisory Council of Lewis and Clark County

  • Captain Alan Hughes — Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office

  • Kellie Goodwin McBride — Citizens for Justice and Fiscal Responsibility

Opponents were:

  • Francis Kromkowski Maternowski — Helena Service for Peace and Justice

  • Reverend Robyn Morrison

  • Haleigh Thrall — concerned parent and member of Helena DSA

Both groups acknowledged the overcrowding, but opponents said additional funds should be spent on mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and other programs to rehabilitate offenders and prevent recidivism. Proponents also said they would like to see fewer people incarcerated and more programming, but said they are facing an immediate problem of overcrowding that could result in a lawsuit.

“I don’t care how enamored you are with changing the social system,” Chisholm said. “We’ve got to face the reality.”

Audience members wrote questions on notecards, which were answered by both proponents and opponents. One question asked who is getting arrested and how long they’re detained. Hughes said most of the population is made up of people charged with felonies. Sometimes when responding to a situation, officers are citing people with misdemeanors instead of arresting them.

“It’s not what you want to hear, but it’s what has to happen,” he said.

Goodwin McBride said if the levy isn’t passed, the vulnerable inmate population will remain in poor conditions.

“The dignity of the people being incarcerated right now is being ignored,” she said.

Opponent Thrall said that even if the levy solves the overcrowding problem, it will result in more people being incarcerated over the 15-year period. She said the levy doesn’t fund programs to end cyclical incarceration.

While the American Civil Liberties Union could file a suit to improve conditions for inmates, she said, most of them shouldn't be incarcerated in the first place. 

“They are not the ones who should suffer because the state or county might get sued,” she said. “The solution is not incarcerating more people. If we’re afraid of that, let’s go back to the drawing board and come up with a levy for more than just renovating our jail and getting people out of the system.”