Bedlam is Local

With the intensity of the national election in 2016, many local “down ballot” issues are forgotten.  One of the most important in my community is asking the voters to fund a major remodel of the local jail.  It has the scintillating title, “General obligation bonds to design, remodel, equip, and furnish the county detention center facility.” On top of the $6.5 million ask, there is a second ballot measure, a 15-year mill levy to raise another $4 million for operations and maintenance.  The owner of a $200,000 home will see almost a $100 increase in annual property taxes if the bond and mill levy pass.1

But pass they must.  The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center is in crisis.


From A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth, 1733. “The Madhouse,” Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What crisis?

I’m a family law attorney; the county jail is not a place I visit as often as do our public defenders and attorneys who specialize in criminal law.  But sometimes I have clients who are involuntarily housed there, so I do visit from time to time.  And I have seen, beyond question, that the people in the building—both guards and inmates—need a better situation.  Built over 30 years ago to hold 58 people, and now officially said to average 82,2 the number of people actually in the jail every day sometimes exceeds 100.3 The overflow goes to jails in nearby communities, and our county picks up the extra tab.

There is no workable alternative to adding more space at the jail.  This bond issue is not a complete or long-term solution, but the previous ballot issue asking for an entire new building failed.  As long as the public insists on longer sentences and mandatory minimums, the voters must remember that if this inn is full but people keep coming, public safety is compromised—both inside the facility and out. According to the National Institute of Corrections of the Department of Justice, “A crowded jail can result in the loss of system integrity.”4

Today, the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center is overcrowded and asked to do too much with insufficient resources.  While it is not yet Bedlam, it is closer than we should be in the 21st century. Perhaps it sounds as if I am engaging in editorial hyperbole, but if anything, I am understating the situation.

Behind the Scenes

Jails are not happy places. Few people other than inmates and law enforcement staff see behind the scenes.  But when attorneys visit clients who land behind bars and need our help, we get a snapshot of the problems facing both the incarcerated and those who work with them. And our view is the tip of the iceberg.

The staff is overworked, underpaid, and always at risk of injury from people who choose to violently express their displeasure at being involuntarily housed at county expense. Inmates are also at risk from one another: even separated by mandatory classifications (men from women, youths from adults), a group of inmates housed together might run the gamut from the 18-year-old first-time DUI offender serving her mandatory 24 hours to a hardened felon awaiting a new sentence.  Nationally, 60% of jail inmates are pretrial detainees, not yet tried, let alone convicted.5  If a person cannot make bail and cannot get the court to grant a bond reduction, they have to stay behind bars; both they and the jail have limited options.

Even when you aren’t an inmate, a visit to the jail is disconcerting:  hearing the sound of an electronic lock engaging behind you is chilling.  The building smells funny; there’s a unique odor combining not-quite-clean bodies, dust, and institutional food.  It settles in your nostrils for hours after you leave and taints your saliva until your next meal. Jails are either overheated or have too much A/C.  There are no soft surfaces, no escape from dull overhead fluorescent light.  A county jail, even at its best, is “hard time”: too little to do, not enough privacy, poor ventilation. It’s a place with few windows.  In many areas inside, you cannot tell day from night.  The world is a palette of various shades of gray and brown accented by people in bright orange clothing.  Except the holding cells. They’re pink, kind of.

The Real Bedlam

By the early 15th century, the Bethlam Royal Hospital in London, housing the mentally ill and other unfortunate indigents, became known as “Bedlam” and became a byword for “a scene of uproar and confusion.”  People from the outside world visited Bedlam for entertainment, to gape at the mentally ill as if attending a sideshow.  People were chained to walls or locked in cells.  Medical care was scarce and primitive.  Treatment was non-existent. For too many of the people committed there, the only exit was death itself.

We are more enlightened today, but enlightenment is fragile.  While we have long since stopped chaining people to walls, “a scene of uproar and confusion” lurks close to the surface of an overcrowded modern jail:  The staff in an overcrowded facility cannot follow the safest protocols and may risk injury themselves.  Insufficient funding for mental health services and addiction treatment puts law enforcement on the front lines of care for some people in crisis.  Our local jail manages to keep inmates fed, clean, healthy, and—when needed—on suicide watch with access to mental health providers.  But without places to properly house the many different types of people who are not allowed to freely walk the streets, the most vulnerable can be harmed—or harm themselves.

Our local jail is so crowded that people with short sentences to serve are sometimes asked to schedule their detention—to serve their time on days with a low census—almost as if they were reserving a room at a popular hotel. On arrival, some are “clocked in” so their time served begins while they are waiting for another inmate to be discharged to free up a spot.  They might arrive at 8:00 a.m. and wait for several hours before jail space is available.  Some detainees who have pled guilty to a crime are given a presentence release, allowed to live and home and work so long as they check in with the probation office on a daily or near-daily basis.  That’s asking for a lot good faith behavior on the part of a person convicted of a crime, but what’s amazing about Montana is how many people actually follow through.

On a recent visit on a day when the county jail roster exceeded 100, I cooled my own heels for a half hour in the waiting area while the Detention Center shuffled inmates, rearranged visiting rooms, and tried to make it safe for me to visit an incarcerated client.  Bless them.  While I waited, I shared the space with two men who were waiting to “check in” to the jail.  They mostly looked at their phones while sitting in hard plastic chairs.

Once admitted inside, I walked past the booking cells, all full—and not all with the recently arrested; they double as space to separate certain people:  One young man, clearly psychotic, was yelling and arguing with the voices inside his head.  His window was covered with brown paper except for a small opening a few inches square, mostly for privacy, but as I walked by, he was looking through the gap, saw me and pounded violently on the door while his debate with his voices rose to a scream.  The pink walls didn’t help much.  Bedlam indeed.

As I signed in at the desk, another inmate began shouting through the plexiglass:  “ARE YOU A LAWYER? I NEED A LAWYER!” I made the mistake of briefly glancing in his direction, and he shouted to me that he had been  waiting—and waiting—for a bed at a mental health facility, could I help him get there?  When I visited again a couple days later that man was still in the same holding cell, now on a first-name basis with the staff.  Still wanting both a lawyer and an institutional bed.

Bedlam can be loud.

It can also be filled with quiet desperation.

People on suicide watch at our local jail are also housed in holding cells near the front desk. Again, brown paper covers all but a fraction of the windows. In those cases it provides a modicum of privacy for people in crisis.  Some are the far-too-many addicted and brokenhearted young women busted for drugs, coming down off of methamphetamine, some knowing their children are now in foster care.  Ashamed, hating themselves, wanting to die.

Some visits, I have tripped over the bedding and foam mattresses left in hallways—placed on the floor in order to house one or two more people.  Sometimes, the only place I can visit with a client is in that same hallway, sitting on a short bench, side by side, or with one of us sitting cross-legged on the floor.  Sometimes that client outweighs me by 100 pounds or more and is not in a good mood. I may be able to hold a semi-private conversation, but I have to be cautious about delivering bad news or expressing disagreement with their point of view.  There is no table to lay out papers, the light is poor.  It’s a challenge to advise people under these conditions and attorney-client privilege is seriously compromised.

But why should law-abiding citizens care about any of this?  Because an overcrowded jail cannot meet the needs of the community for safety, it puts our friends and neighbors who work there at risk, and it cannot provide the services needed to help keep troubled people away from the revolving door of the system.  It might also be your friend or relative who is locked up in there.

When the previous ballot measure failed, opponents fell into two camps.  Both groups opposed, but for near-opposite reasons:  One group believed that we incarcerate too many people, that community release and more generous bail conditions would alleviate overcrowding.  I’m sorry, my friends, but every effort is already made to avoid putting people in jail.  Deferred and suspended sentences in exchange for plea deals are routine.  Minor offenders are offered ankle bracelets and house arrest if they can afford it, and the detention center staff not-so-subtly reminds the courts and the prosecutors of the daily jail census.  People are not sent to jail if any reason can be found to avoid it. Some people who should be behind bars won’t be until they’ve commited multiple felonies.

On the other side, some opponents to jail expansion think that  a “fancy jail” means that “criminals are coddled,” that miserable jails are appropriate punishment, and that society just needs to “lock ’em up and throw away the key.”  That’s also unrealistic.  Most offenses that land people in jail are misdemeanors or low-level felonies; theft, assaults, drug possession, or assorted misbehavior while intoxicated.  People will get out—and relatively soon.  Further, that “criminal” might be your kid, who went along with the lemmings in their trip over the cliff because it sounded like fun at the time. That “criminal” could even be you—in the wrong place at the wrong time, guilty or not.

I urge my fellow local voters to support the jail expansion ballot issues. Vote yes for the bond and the mill levy, folks.  Our community needs it.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

FOLLOW UP December 16, 2016:  Sadly, the bond issue passed, but the mill levy failed.  People don’t seem to understand that if you build it, you also have to staff and maintain it.  Local officials are scrambling to see if they can use some of the bond money to at least create a temporary fix.  Jail census was at 118 this week.

Please read disclaimer.


Bennett, David M.  and Donna Lattin. Jail Capacity Planning Guide: A Systems ApproachNational Institute of Corrections, United States Department of Justice, 2009, page xii.  Accessed 10/21/2016 at

  1. $12.44 for the bond issue and $85.72 for the mill levy.  Source: “General Election Publication Ballot.”  Accessed online 10/21/2016.
  2. “Welcome to the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center”. Lewis and Clark County, Montana.  Accessed online 10/21/ 2016.
  3. This should not be a surprise when you combine a natural population increase with the “get tough on crime” approach of the past 30 years.  In 1990, the first decennial census completed after the jail was built, the population of Lewis and Clark County was 47,495.  In the 2010 census it was 63, 395, and today is estimated at 66,418. (Source:  Between then and now, longer sentences and more mandatory minimum sentences have become part of the criminal justice landscape. (Source: Bennett, page v.)
  4. Bennett, page xii.
  5. Bennett, page xiii.