Undersheriff Fuss makes the case for planned extension to local jail

Thursday, September 13, 2018
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Photo by Andrew Turck
            Big Horn County Undersheriff Mike Fuss describes the layout for the proposed extension of the local jail during a meeting last Thursday evening at Little Big Horn College. The planned extension would cost an estimated $12.3 million total with no new taxes expected for county residents.

Looking back on his career as Big Horn County sheriff from 2006-14, Lawrence “Pete” Big Hair recalled the local jail often was stretched well beyond capacity with detainees. As such, he said, the current facility must be expanded to suit the growing need.

“We’ve been dealing with this problem since I was there,” Big Hair said. “It’s probably only gotten worse since then.”

Inmates, current Sheriff Frank Simpson said, have continued their cycles of being released, arrested and back in their cell within days – or, in one case, two hours. About three quarters of the inmates housed are in for felonies.

Speaking to an audience of five at Little Big Horn College last Thursday evening, Undersheriff Mike Fuss said the jail – which legally can hold 34 detainees – has “58 as of today.” These crowded conditions cause security issues both for inmates and guards, he added, because “if there’s a fight in the middle of the night, I only have one officer on.”

The proposed extension, according to Fuss, will allow the facility “to house 98 [inmates] comfortably” with two-tiered cells to lock everyone down so the residents “couldn’t get into mischief.”

A county pamphlet states the proposed facility extension likely would be paid off in 10 years and backed with $12.3 million – $5 million from cash-onhand and $7.3 million via loans.

“The project will be financed primarily through natural resource royalties,” the pamphlet continues, “and no new taxes are expected.”

In addition, Fuss said, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office is working with Pay Tel Communications to incorporate a system of rehabilitation for inmates if the jail is expanded. Included in this system are more than 3,000 courses of study available for free, with subjects ranging from childcare to anger management to getting one’s GED.

Through these efforts, Simpson said, the county could help “break up the merry-go-round” of repeat incarceration. Responding to an audience member’s skepticism as to planned rehabilitation efforts, Fuss said, “If two out of five get something out of it, then I’m ahead of the game.”

“If we get this done, they’re going to come in and put all of these [iPads] in there, absolutely free, for all these inmates,” Fuss said of the Pay Tel program. “It’s an educational tool.”

As it is – based on inmate response among 24-30 such facilities – the current jail was ranked in a 2015 American Civil Liberties Union report as having the worst food variety, plumbing, mold management and access to natural light. It also was ranked in the bottom three for 10 of 18 subjects including perceived safety, access to fresh air and temperature.

Built in 1979, the current jail only was made to detain four females. According to Fuss, there was one day where jailers needed to house 22. Sheriff’s Office personnel, in response, closed down the visitor room and placed mats on the floor for the women.

“It was a mess,” Fuss said.

Attempts to paint and clean the jail cost about $40,000 each time, he continued, adding that the two times they tried, it didn’t last long.

“It’s not fair to the inmates we have,” Fuss said of the current conditions. “They’re human beings; they’re not animals. And right now, they’re being treated like that.”

Oftentimes, he said, local residents suggest the county use the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility, an empty 464-bed facility also located in Hardin. “Reliance on Two Rivers,” the pamphlet states, “is financially and functionally irresponsible.”

In the realm of safety, it continues, both the Montana Department of Corrections and surrounding counties declined to use Two Rivers, “due to is failure to meet minimum national and state jail safety standards.”

“The first thing I noticed is they put a toilet in the outdoor rec in Montana…so guess what happens when the first winter comes? Those pipes break. It was the silliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Fuss said, listing some of the facility’s multiple infractions. “They put sheetrock in the ceiling and it wasn’t even six feet [high]. And this was in the maximum security units where they keep the bad of the bad.”

At a minimum, the county expects that purchasing and bringing Two Rivers up to safety standards would cost $11 million, plus $580,000 more in annual operating costs when compared to the proposed county jail expansion. Over a 25-year period, the county believes that expanding their existing jail would save at least $12.8 million compared to using Two Rivers.

When sorting through their options, Fuss said, doing nothing and letting the jail close is not a viable solution. After all, he continued, the other Montana jails also are running at or above capacity.

“We can’t transport our inmates out-of-state,” he said, “and there is nowhere in Montana to put them.”

The meeting at the college on the proposed jail expansion is the first of four, all scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The second meet will be Tuesday, Sept. 25 at the Lodge Grass Senior Center; the third on Thursday, Oct. 11 at the Big Horn County Courthouse; and the fourth on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at a location in Pryor yet to be announced.

County residents decide whether or not to finance the jail expansion in Montana’s general election, set for Nov. 6.