Ward County Jail expansion moves ahead: Overcrowding leads to more fights, other western ND counties also mull jail options
MINOT — Putting two men in a double-bunked jail cell with a single toilet is bound to create some tension. And the line for the loo isn’t getting any shorter at the crowded Ward County Jail, where the headcount has skyrocketed with the region’s oil-driven population boom.
“Now, you’ve got three, four other guys coming in to use their bathrooms, and that creates friction,” Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski said. “We’ve had disagreements and arguments, and some fistfights.”
Relief is in sight.
The county struck a deal with Ogden Newspapers earlier this month, agreeing to pay $304,000 for a parking lot used by staff of the Minot Daily News. The parking lot is just north of the existing county jail and will serve as the site for a 100-bed jail expansion, bringing the county’s total number of inmate beds to 212, including eight juvenile detention beds being moved to the basement of the current jail to make more room for adult inmates, Kukowski said.
County officials will meet with the project’s architect next week to finalize the design. Construction could start mid-summer, he said.
Jail overcrowding in Ward and other counties has emerged as a side-effect of North Dakota’s status as the fastest-growing state in the nation. Census estimates released in December pegged the state’s population at a record high 723,393, up about 78,000 from 2004, with oil and gas mining activity in the western half of the state driving much of the surge.
“The last four years we’ve just been on a constant increase,” Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said of the inmate population at the county’s detention center in Bismarck. “I’m not sure where it’s going to end.”
Wishing for a crystal ball
In Ward County, inmates outnumber permanent beds on most days, forcing overflow inmates to sleep in “boats” — portable plastic sleds with mattresses inside.
The jail currently has 104 beds, but it houses an average of 120 inmates and has held as many as 132 at one time, Kukowski said.
Attempts are made to schedule inmates for their first court appearances before the weekend so that those eligible for release can leave and make room for weekend arrestees who have to wait until Monday for court, he said. The county also is exploring alternatives to incarceration such as GPS monitoring to alleviate jail overcrowding.
Ten years ago, the jail’s average inmate count was 40 to 50, Kukowski said. It increased to 65 to 70 inmates by 2009 and is now nearly twice that, which the sheriff attributed to population growth.
The jail expansion is being designed to support a second story if needed in the future, Kukowski said, adding no one knows for certain the Minot area’s current population or how high it could soar.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 40,888 residents in Minot in 2010 and estimated 43,746 in 2012. City spokesman Bob Lindee said the city’s best estimate of its current service population is between 50,000 and 55,000, which doesn’t include the Minot Air Force Base north of town.
City officials are bracing for a population increase of nearly 19,000 people from 2010 to 2017.
“If only I had a crystal ball … I could build this accordingly,” Kukowski said.
Ward not alone
Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching knows the feeling.
In late 2008, the county completed construction of a $16 million jail that was supposed to handle prisoner growth for 50 years.
But the 132-bed facility is already operating well above capacity, housing 148 inmates on one recent day, Busching said.
As in Ward County, inmates are sleeping in portable beds, and Busching said tension is higher than normal and more fights are breaking out.
“It’s on a day-to-day basis, but it occurs far more often than I want it to,” he said.
A recent study found the jail is 104 beds short of what’s needed, he said.
“So, planning for the future, you can probably double that,” he said.
Williams County commissioners and their counterparts from Burke, Divide, McKenzie and Mountrail counties are discussing the possibility of combining resources to build a regional jail.
“We’re going to have to pull the trigger here in the next couple months,” Busching said, estimating it would be a minimum of two years before a new jail would be ready to open.
“Personally, I’m just kind of hoping the state’s going to start stepping up to the plate, too,” he added. “Because we’re bearing all these costs on our own on the backs of the Williams County taxpayers, and we’re supporting a whole lot of folks here that are sending a whole lot of money to Bismarck.”
Residents in Burleigh and Morton counties will vote June 10 on a half-cent sales tax to support construction of a joint 476-bed jail in Bismarck.
The counties’ existing jails have a combined 176 beds between them, well short of last year’s daily average of 220 inmates, said Heinert, the Burleigh County sheriff.
The proposed jail could be expanded to support another 430 to 450 inmates, he said.
In April, the county will release an updated estimate of the project’s cost, which was quoted at about $50 million two and a half years ago, Heinert said.
“We’ve been getting good feedback on it,” he said. “The anticipation is that it’s going to pass.”
Temporary fixes for now
In Ward County, residents voted in 2012 to authorize the county to issue sales tax revenue bonds to finance construction of the jail expansion, as well as infrastructure repairs related to the 2011 flood, courthouse renovations and a new county office building.
The $39.3 million in bonds — $10.5 million of which is for the jail expansion — will be paid off with revenue from a half-cent sales tax that will expire at the end of 2022 or earlier if the necessary funds are collected before then. So far, the tax revenue is rolling in faster than projected, with the county collecting $6.1 million in the first nine months, county Auditor-Treasurer Devra Smestad said.
In addition to jail cells, the expansion will contain a new sheriff’s office with its own entrance so that visitors will no longer have to pass through courthouse security and walk through the courthouse to get there.
Capt. Penny Erickson, the jail’s commander, said the expansion’s two-tiered cell block design will allow jailers to observe all of the cells from a central control room, an improvement over the five-level design of the current 32-year-old jail.
“The more floors, the more staff,” she said.
Other improvements will include a main-level recreation room, padded cells and video visitation. Kukowski said the additional cells also will allow the jail to start accepting federal prisoners again.
Completion of the expansion is at least two years away, Kukowski said. Until then, the jail will rely on temporary fixes and hope to avoid sanctions from the Department of Corrections as it has done so far.
“We have to do what we can to get by,” he said.