Jail filling up fast | RecordCourier.com

Jail filling up fast

by Maggie O'Neill

Douglas County jail neared maximum capacity recently, prompting a judge to approve early release of inmates if necessary.

The jail, built in the early 1980s, has room for about 100 people. An influx of weekend arrests and inmates given misdemeanor jail sentences in August, sent the population up to a high of 91.

Jail division commander Sgt. Paul Howell started sending inmates to the Stateline jail, which then reached its capacity.

“If it wasn’t for the Lake Tahoe jail, we would have had to release inmates here,” he said.

The Minden jail hit maximum capacity several times in July and August, limiting the number of bunks available to two or three.

Jail inmate population increases during the summer because more people are arrested, Howell said. The population problem may occur again next summer.

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“We don’t anticipate (capacity problems) in the fall and winter,” Howell said. “We’ll have to see what next summer brings. It will be interesting to see if this is the norm versus the exception.”

In August, District Court Judge David Gamble signed the sheriff’s office request to release Douglas County jail inmates early if needed.

“This is the first time I recall us having to do that,” said Howell’s boss, Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini, about the request to the judge.

Early-release approval allows for inmates near completion of low-level crime sentences to be released prior to their scheduled date. Inmates with low bails could have been released on their own recognizance as a remedy, but early-release never came to pass.

“It just gave us the proactive approach to be able to handle overcrowding,” Pierini said.

Problems and solutions

One problem contributing to jail overcrowding is the split-up of inmates based on gender. An entire cell block at the Minden jail is designated for women. When overcrowding occurs in the men’s cells, empty beds in the women’s block can’t be used.

Because of the overcrowding at Douglas County jail, sentenced inmates were not separated from those awaiting hearings or trials.

“You lose the ability to segregate that much when you hit those kinds of (high) numbers (at a jail),” Howell said.

Five isolation booths have been revamped and moved closer to the main control room to make more beds available and increase safety. Despite the increased number of inmates at the Douglas County jail, dramatic increases of jail crimes, like assault and theft, did not occur.

“That’s why overcrowding is such an issue for a jail commander,” Howell said. “The more people living in a confined space, the higher the tension.”

Cost increases for food, bedding and supplies, and more inmates, simply means more work and higher scrutiny of inmates by deputies.

“My staff works there butts off to be blunt,” Howell said. “We were fortunate we didn’t experience any problems.”

A future jail

Capacity at the jail in September has dropped to a daily average just over 70.

“We’re back to normal now,” Pierini said, “but there for a while we were seeing a whole lot of people in custody.”

Howell shares monthly reports of the inmate population at Douglas County jail with county commissioners. He said no noteworthy plans have developed.

“The overcrowding is indicative of community growth,” said Howell. “The jail is 22 years old now, and we’re starting to see where it’s getting outgrown by growth.”

He believes a new jail will need to be built within 10 years, and that talk about an add-on at the back of the jail near the booking area out toward the Carson Valley Inn is just that.

A bond initiative passed in the early 1980s to build the Douglas County jail on Buckeye Road, included plans for an add-on in the direction of Carson Valley Inn, according to Pierini.

“The jail is based on an outdated design from the 17 and 1800s,” said Howell. “To invest the kind of expense needed to expand the jail in my opinion would not be worth it. The county would be best served by designing a new facility.”

The sheriff’s office closely follows federal statutes regarding inmate populations, but the problem remains that over the years, the average number of inmates has increased.

“(The county) had the foresight to estimate enough room (at the jail) all the way to 2000,” Pierini said. “It’s 2004 now and we’re just starting to feel the crunch on it. In that manner, it’s been better than expected.”

— Maggie O’Neill can be reached at mo’neill@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 214.