County jails try to resolve expansion issuesThe last time Burleigh and Morton counties talked about expanding jails, it took almost 20 years to get anything done. This time around, discussions have been ongoing for at least five years. In the early 1980s, both counties were exploring ways to get their jails up to new state codes and to expand for more inmates. Talks for a regional facility broke down, and the counties ended up going their own ways to remedy the problems. Morton County built a new jail, finished in 1986, that currently holds 35 inmates. Burleigh County renovated and expanded its downtown jail in 1992, then finished a fourth floor in 1999. That facility holds 138 inmates.
By: An AP Member Exchange By Jenny Michael, The Bismarck Tribune, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — The last time Burleigh and Morton counties talked about expanding jails, it took almost 20 years to get anything done. This time around, discussions have been ongoing for at least five years.
In the early 1980s, both counties were exploring ways to get their jails up to new state codes and to expand for more inmates. Talks for a regional facility broke down, and the counties ended up going their own ways to remedy the problems. Morton County built a new jail, finished in 1986, that currently holds 35 inmates. Burleigh County renovated and expanded its downtown jail in 1992, then finished a fourth floor in 1999. That facility holds 138 inmates.
Now both counties see too many inmates for the number of bunks they have available, with nowhere left to add more beds. The counties still struggle to determine the right way to proceed, though plans were drawn and committees formed.
The Burleigh County Detention Center averaged 129 inmates per day in 2009, said Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert. The jail has to keep different types of inmates apart, such as men from women and pretrial from posttrial inmates, which makes the actual capacity less than 138 inmates. The jail can be at capacity with 117 inmates. The Morton County Correctional Center averages around 30 inmates per day, said Morton County Sheriff Dave Shipman.
When the facilities are full, inmates are transported elsewhere and the county pays to have them housed. In 2009, Burleigh County spent $38,000 to house inmates in facilities other than its own, which doesn’t include the cost to transport them there or to pay officers to drive them.
That figure pales in comparison to Morton County, which spent $130,000 in 2009 to house inmates in other facilities. Shipman budgeted for less than $100,000 in housing costs, “but that’s an area that’s hard to budget for,” he said.
Morton County doesn’t have a transport team, whose job is to transport inmates, so patrol and investigations officers end up moving off their normal duties to move inmates throughout the state.
This year, Burleigh County will attempt to track how much money is spent on transporting inmates, Heinert said. Most of the time, inmates are taken to Mercer County’s jail in Stanton or other nearby counties, though deputies have transported inmates to Dickinson when needed.
“It’s not excessive, but it’s becoming excessive,” Heinert said, about the department’s transportation and housing costs.
As the lessons of the past teach, jails don’t get built quickly and plans for such facilities don’t come together easily.
The Burleigh County Jail, built in 1930, was considered outdated in 1976, when then-Sheriff Bob Harvey went ahead with renovations for safety reasons, despite talks of Burleigh and Morton counties forming a regional jail. The renovations were necessary after 18 inmates attempted suicide within 18 months, he said in a Tribune article.
The need for new jail facilities became imperative when new state rules for jails went into effect in 1981. By 1983, Burleigh and Morton counties were the only facilities in the state having trouble getting up to the standards, according to then-Attorney General Robert Wefald.
Burleigh and Morton counties talked on and off about joining forces to build a bigger regional jail but never came to a consensus about how to finance it and who would be in charge. In 1984, Burleigh County voters twice turned down measures for bonds for a new jail. Morton County moved forward with its own jail plans, finding ways to finance with existing money without going to the voters as they planned and built the Mandan/Morton County Combined Law Enforcement Center and Morton County Correctional Center.
By 1988, Burleigh County had saved enough money in a jail maintenance and construction fund to start planning for a new jail without voter approval. It was completed in 1992, then the fourth floor was finished to hold more inmates in 1999.
During the 2006 sheriff’s elections, when Heinert and Shipman were elected, the issue of jail expansion was a hot topic again. At that point, the Burleigh County Detention Center was holding an average of 125 inmates a day, compared to 68 per day in 1999.
The sheriffs are the jail administrators, in charge of making sure inmates are taken care of in accordance with the law. They can’t turn people out of jail if they’re being held on bond or sentenced, and they can’t stack them on top of each other. They have to work within their budgets to house the inmates. As such, both Heinert and Shipman are proponents of getting something done to increase jail space.
“The longer we wait, obviously, the costs are going to go up,” Shipman said.
Both counties have drawn up plans for jail expansions in their current locations.
The Burleigh County plans would connect a five-story jail to the current jail at a cost of $17.7 million; the main floor would house administrative offices, and the second and third floors would add 64 new bunks to the jail. The fourth and fifth floors would be left unfinished for the time being or finished for an additional $3 million and make room for 64 more inmates. A different option would be a new building off-site, which would be more expensive but could possibly be easier to expand.
Morton County has plans ready for a 20-bunk expansion and additional office space. With the current trend of increasing jail populations, that would be a short-term solution, Shipman said.
“I think it would be a Band-Aid,” he said. “Eight to 10 years down the road, we’re going to be looking for more space again.”
Just like the last time, sheriffs in both counties are intrigued by the idea of some sort of joint or regional facility. The two sheriffs’ departments work well together and with their municipal counterparts.
Heinert said he thinks a joint facility for Burleigh and Morton would be successful, while Shipman said he thinks it might be worthwhile to include other nearby counties without jail facilities.
The struggles that came up last time, with funding levels and power struggles, could come up again if the counties revisit a regional facility. But Heinert thinks the right people are in office to deal with it.
Shipman said the logical conclusion toward funding would be that Burleigh County, with a higher population and more inmates, would handle the brunt of the costs.