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March 1, 2006 - Casper Star-Tribune (WY)

Editorial: Gleaming New Jail Won't Stay Empty For Long

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The problem with jails is, they're always too small. No sooner does a community open a new one than debased humanity -- generally fueled by nasty chemicals n jams it to the rafters.

So the pattern has been, and so it will be, until communities devise methods to stanch the flow of misery.

Natrona County opened its new jail addition for public inspection on Saturday. Our verdict: It's an interesting place to visit, but -- as the ancient joke goes -- we wouldn't want to live there.

Despite its $13.7 million price, the building offers grim hospitality. Immaculate but dreary, every feature is designed to defeat the malice and cunning of its inhabitants.

Structural surfaces are concrete, steel or laminated glass. Personal hygiene occurs at one-piece toilet-sink combos built of gleaming stainless steel. At a phone bank, where lonely inmates will dial whoever still accepts their collect calls, seats are bolted to the floor. Hinged hooks in each cell toggle downward if an inventive inmate tries to hang anything heavier than a shirt n himself, for example.

Except for a trickle of curious taxpayers, the cells were unoccupied on Saturday. That won't last.

The new wing offers 224 beds, nearly doubling the capacity of Sheriff Mark Benton's Crossbar Hotel. But experience nationwide teaches that every bunk will be full within a couple of years.

Methamphetamine, the dominant drug of this decade, will contribute to nearly every arrival. If the prisoner didn't commit mayhem because of meth's brain-wracking effects, then he probably stole to pay for his addiction.

The influx of meth users could accelerate further, if the Wyoming Legislature adopts a bill that advanced in committee last week. Sponsored by Rep. Tom Labnau, R-Gillette, the bill would require a week of jail for every first-time meth offender, plus supervised probation and mandatory drug assessments.

The idea is to make sure first-timers get the help they need to kick the habit before repeated offenses send them to prison.

This noble idea may be undermined by its cost and a shortage of drug- assessment contractors. Still, innovation is imperative. Communities can't afford to keep building jail cells as rapidly as meth creates criminals.

Unless we want Benton to be Casper's leading landlord, the community must pursue alternative solutions for intervention, treatment and prevention.

The recent marathon of public meetings on a community meth initiative made a start. The work is continuing, moving toward implementing a multifaceted plan. (Full disclosure: This newspaper's publisher is a member of the task force working on the project.)

The extent to which these efforts will help can't be guaranteed, but the community can't afford not to try. Our jail's shining new wing is not merely an expensive cage; it is a receptacle for wasted human potential.

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