Big Horn County commissioners seek voter approval for jail expansion

Thursday, August 30, 2018

File photo by Andrew Turck

Allen Rapacz, president of Schutz Foss Architects in Billings, explains the layout of a projected new addition to the Big Horn County jail in late October 2016 during a meeting at the Big Horn County Fairgrounds. The county’s previous bid to fund the expansion via levy was defeated during the Nov. 8 election that year by a margin of 1,633 to 2,455.

Concerns over staff safety, inmate overcrowding, and deteriorating building conditions are at the heart of a proposal by the Big Horn County commissioners to expand the existing county jail in Hardin. This November, voters will have an opportunity to approve a measure granting the county authority to finance expansion and improvement of the current jail.

Big Horn County Commissioner Sidney Fitzpatrick said the county evaluated a range of alternatives to meet the its growing detention needs, but the decision to expand the existing jail came down to cost.

“At the end of the day, Big Horn County can expand, modernize and operate our existing jail for less money than it would cost to rent beds in an outside facility, or even to purchase and remodel a portion of Two Rivers,” he said. “Over time, we expect to save taxpayers an estimated $12.8 million dollars compared to the least expensive of the alternatives we studied.”

Total cost for the jail expansion is estimated to be $12.3 million, however, no new taxes are anticipated as a result of the project. County officials plan to finance the expansion through a mixture of cash-onhand and borrowing against future natural resource royalties. The county anticipates paying off the facility within the first 10 years.

Constructed in 1979, the Big Horn County jail originally was built to accommodate a maximum of 34 inmates, but as drug abuse and crime have increased locally, the jail has become stretched beyond its limit. Today, the jail regularly houses 50-55 inmates, with peak populations of 60 or more individuals.

Overcrowding is not only an issue for inmates who are crammed into tight living quarters, it is a safety issue for officers and staff who have trouble safely supervising inmates when the jail is too full.

“You have one officer on duty in the middle of the night and if a fight breaks out, he’s racing into a cell built for eight with 15 or 20 unsecured inmates,” said Undersheriff Mike Fuss, who is responsible for operating the jail on a day-to-day basis. “It’s a huge safety and security issue.”

Before making up their minds on the jail expansion, county residents are encouraged to attend one of four scheduled open houses. During the events, participants will have an opportunity to learn about current jail conditions, review potential alternatives and ask questions of county leadership.

Open houses are scheduled in Big Horn communities on the following dates:

First: Thursday, Sept. 6 from 5:30-7 p.m. at Little Big Horn College (1 Forestry Lane, Crow Agency)

Second: Tuesday, Sept. 25 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Lodge Grass Senior Center (119 Harding Avenue, Lodge Grass)

Third: Thursday, Oct. 11 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Big Horn County Courthouse (121 3rd Street West, Hardin)

Fourth: Tuesday, Oct. 30 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Pryor (TBA)

For more information, call the Big Horn County commissioners at (406) 665-9700 or email at bhc@bighorncountymt.gov or visit the county website at www.bighorncountyjail.com

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