Support for New Jail Lukewarm
By John Craig, Staff writer
COLVILLE -- Like Boy Scouts without a match, Stevens County officials tried to build a fire of public support for a new jail Monday night.
At the end of a two-hour meeting, it wasn't clear whether they had a flame or just a puff of smoke.
About 40 people turned out for the meeting, but most of them were public officials or civic activists. Many had served on the committee that studied seven options and recommended a new $12 million jail across the street from the county courthouse.
Even so, there was skepticism and opposition.
Colville defense attorney Dee Hokom said officials should confine themselves to the committee's goal of reducing incarceration by 25 percent through sentencing alternatives such as electronic home monitoring and work-release programs.
Building a new jail would just encourage judges to issue "more of the ridiculous kind of sentences that we are seeing now," Hokom said.
Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, which opposes stiff drug penalties, also called for alternative sentencing instead of a new jail. She noted she has a brother who contracted tuberculosis while serving time in a federal prison for a drug conviction.
"How much money are we going to spend on locking people up when maybe we could consider some alternatives?" she asked.
Others weren't eager to improve conditions for inmates at taxpayer expense, but expressed concerns that the overcrowded jail in the courthouse basement is unsafe for corrections officers.
"They're just putting their lives at risk every day, going in there," said Warren Graham, one of the jail's volunteer chaplains and a former Spokane County corrections officer.
If an inmate attacks an officer, there often isn't enough room in the narrow corridors for others to intervene, Graham said.
Superior Court Judge Al Nielson said the jail now houses many mentally unstable inmates who state mental institutions no longer accept. They make an inadequate jail more dangerous and raise questions about "humanitarian treatment," Nielson said.
"They really don't belong in a jail, they belong in a hospital," but disturbed inmates often have to wait two or three months for a bed at Eastern State Hospital, Nielson said.
That's a problem that will only get worse because of state cutbacks, said Kaydee Steele, director of the Stevens County Counseling Center. A better jail is needed to keep the public safe, she said.
Steele also liked the idea of supporting corrections jobs in Stevens County instead of Ferry County, where many of Stevens County's inmates now are housed.
Barry Lamont, executive director of the non-profit Rural Resources social service agency, said there is far too little money available for social intervention to prevent crime. A new jail is a necessity, he said.
Marcus Mayor Fran Bolt said it was "just silly" to suppose that the current jail -- built when the county had 20,000 to 25,000 residents -- is adequate now that the county has about 40,000 residents.
County Commissioner Malcolm Friedman called for those in the audience to help generate public support for what he predicted will be an uphill struggle.
Unlike schools, jails are "all negative," Friedman said. "It's all our failure in society, and we're building a monument to it. But I think what we have downstairs is not upholding public safety, so I'll do what I can."
Chairman Tony Delgado said commissioners may call another public meeting in a month or two.
"We just can't let the fire die out," he said.
John Craig may be contacted at (509) 459-5429 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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