BILLINGS — In January 1993, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility reached a record daily high inmate population of 172, just two shy of its capacity.
Float that number by Yellowstone County Sheriff's Capt. Dennis McCave, who ran the state's largest jail for nearly its entire existence until his retirement last year, and he just chuckles.
"Those old numbers, that’s a vacation now," he said. "We could send people home for the day if that was the population."
On Dec. 24, McCave saw something he hadn't seen in his years running the jail — 10,000 inmates booked in over the course of one year.
"That's the first time it's ever happened," he said. "It's hovered in the 9,000s for the last few years, but it's never gotten there before."
The high inmate numbers are putting a strain on staff and services, as well as making corrections and control more difficult. The likelihood of violent confrontations increases with crowding, and they affect everything from mail service to the budget, food to laundry services.
"The numbers just go up every year and at times there's no place to put the inmates," said YCDF Classification Officer Janine Miller, who is in charge of inmate intake. "At times, we just shake our heads and think, 'What are we going to do about this,' and then everybody just puts their heads together and we come up with a solution."
Now, officials are looking at expanding or rebuilding the jail to lighten that burden.
"We need to start looking at an immediate solution within probably three to five years," McCave said. "Have you ever been to a family reunion where everybody’s shoved into a small cabin together, and you’re all expected to behave? Now imagine it’s with people you don’t even know and a lot of you might be accused of serious crimes."
It's still early in the process, but Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, the county commissioners and other local officials have begun researching options.
"We haven't committed to anything as of now," Linder said. "It'll involve studying and planning for the future, and we're purely in the exploration stages right now."
In late 2012, Linder and the county commissioners saw a presentation from a private, Georgia-based company called Proteus On-Demand Facilities that builds customized semi-permanent buildings, including correctional facilities.
"We're really just shopping around right now," Linder said. "You tell them what you want and they build it. In 34 years, I'd never heard of this in the least."
County Commissioner Jim Reno, who also heard the presentation, said companies have approached the county about building a structure on their own dime and then leasing it back to county or charging a daily rate to repay the loan.
Those companies have a profit margin and bottom line they need to meet, but Reno said he's willing to listen to any options on the table.
"So far to date, it has not made financial sense to have somebody come in and build it as a business venture and then lease it back to us, but I'll want the sheriff to take the lead in any of this," Reno said.
On the way up
Miller, who's been a jail employee for 24 years, finds a place for inmates when they're booked into the jail.
"We've watched it escalate over the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10," she said. "It affects everybody's job around here. Everything is busier. Everything is more tense."
From 2005 to 2007, the daily jail population was as high as an average of 430 inmates, but by mid-2007, it dropped to levels from nearly a decade before, at 363.
When the $10 million jail opened in 1987, it replaced one at the Yellowstone County Courthouse — which could house 62 inmates — and was intended to meet the county's detention needs for about 20 years.
It took only about six years before the jail had days with 170-plus inmates, close to its capacity of 174.
By 1993, the number of inmates began to strain services. Inmate uniforms wore out more quickly. Food service providers had to order more food more often, costing extra money. Medical services were stretched, and staff was asked to supervise more inmates in addition to other responsibilities.
"Whenever there's more inmates, everything costs more — food, medical services, medications, everything," Miller said.
As one of the 83 staff members, Adam Erekson has been a detention officer at the jail for two years. His duties include general oversight of groups of inmates, including meal times.
"The crowding can definitely make it difficult to get all the things done that need to be done," he said. "And you have so many people there that not everybody is going to get along. It does make it a lot more high risk for the officers and the inmates."
In one instance, an inmate wanted to watch television later in the evening and turned up the volume. A nearby inmate wanted to go to bed, and the two men ended up getting into a fight.
While everything ended fairly quickly, that's what Erekson described as a typical incident that's compounded by so many people sharing such close quarters.
"You've got so many different personalities that want to do different things that it's going to create tension," he said. "You are just needing to watch that many more people. There's so many more that not everybody can even sit at tables in the dining area and they branch out to their bunks. So now, you have to keep an eye on the whole rest of the unit."
During court appearances, some inmates participate by video feed from the jail. If there are a large number scheduled to appear, staff will sometimes have to pull a corrections officer from other duties to transfer inmates to and from the holding room.
Miller said there are times when there isn't a single bed available for incoming inmates.
"It adds so much tension," she said. "But we deal with each situation on an individual basis and we do what we have to to keep the facility, the staff, the inmates and the community safe."
Something as simple as mail delivery can cause tempers to flare. Many of the inmates receive mail from family members, including money they can spend at the commissary.
With so many more people housed there, it can take staff longer than usual to go through the mail, because all of it must be opened before delivery.
"It's a process that, in theory, should take one day, but it could end up taking two or three days depending on the amount of staff and letters," Erekson said. "A lot of (inmates) will call their family, who say they've already sent the letter. We have to tell them, 'Hey, we have 423 other people that we're working with besides you.'"
In the mid-1990s, officials began to regularly see populations above 200 and they began to seriously talk about expanding the jail.
They eventually decided on a dormitory-style expansion.
In January 1997, Yellowstone County unveiled a $1.34 million, 100-bed expansion made up of a pair of new 50-bed units. County taxpayers funded much of the project through an increased motor vehicle tax. The federal government provided $500,000 in exchange for the county guaranteeing 20 beds for federal prisoners.
Two weeks before the expansion wrapped up, the jail reached 265 inmates, just nine shy of its new capacity of 274.
Just two years later, officials added 12 bunks and discussed further expansion by 2005 after the population shot up to as many as 368 inmates.
"But that may be wishful thinking," then-Sheriff Chuck Maxwell told The Gazette in May 1999. "Probably within the next couple of years, we will want to put together a committee" to explore expansion options.
In 2002, the average daily population sat right around 400, in a jail designed to house fewer than 300 inmates. Double-bunking many of the cells allowed room for another 100 people, helping ease some of the pressure.
Populations continued to rise over the next few years, until the record daily average in 2005 and a record single-day high of 476 in 2007. They dropped to an average of about 360 not long after, but began to rise again within two years.
Fast forward and 2012 was the second-busiest year in the jail's history for daily averages, with about 412 inmates on any given day, an 8 percent increase from 2011.
"Right at 400 it starts to get pretty tight," McCave said. "We've been hitting the 420s and then we'll drop below 400 again for a day or so. But the difference is now it's staying over 400 more often. It might drop below that for a week, instead of for months like it would before. We have such a large population that it fluctuates for a lot of different reasons."
What's filling the jail?
There's no single reason why the jail population is increasing.
McCave and Reno said it tends to go in cycles, but recent trends suggest it could remain higher.
"It's overcrowded, there's no doubt," Reno said. "But it does drop. We were at these same kind of numbers a few years ago and it dropped, but now it's back up, and it's staying there."
One possible factor is the steady growth of the population in and around Billings. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 113,000 people lived in Yellowstone County in 1990, while 2011 estimates put the county at 150,000, a 32 percent increase.
Another source of extra inmates comes from surrounding counties and the state and federal governments. YCDF contracts with Stillwater and Carbon counties, which no longer operate their own jails, for about a half-dozen inmates each per day.
Changes in law enforcement tactics may also contribute to jail numbers, although not in the most obvious way. In 1994, Maxwell said some of the increases in jail population were attributable to more aggressive law enforcement.
Police had received grants to bring in more officers and agencies began focusing more on drug crimes and DUI offenders.
Reno said a higher percentage of the inmates at YCDF are now in on serious felony crimes than in years past.
"It does appear that the severity of the offense is such that you don't want these guys on the streets," he said. "If we do anything right, it has to be to protect our citizens. The low-hanging fruit is gone, and it's those bad folks that are just too much of a risk to your house and mine that we're seeing in."
Miller agrees. Since her duties include interviewing inmates, reviewing their crimes and placing them in the jail based on criteria including criminal history, behavior and pending charges, she's familiar with the types of crime.
She's watched as people are being booked on more violent and serious crimes, and on higher bonds. That means there's a chance they're incarcerated longer — possibly through a trial that can take a year to happen — meaning beds don't free up as often.
"When I first started here, there were a different caliber of inmates that would come in," she said. "Nowadays, they're more violent and there's a higher amount of violence associated with crimes, there seems to be more aggression in the units."
Outside programs including the 24/7 sobriety program, which requires DUI offenders to check in twice daily; the Community Crisis Center, which provides 24-hour assistance for people struggling with mental health or addiction issues; and treatment programs for anger, mental health and addiction noticeably decrease inmate numbers.
"It really takes the pressure off of our population," McCave said. "All of these little pieces you put in help keep the population down."
However, many of those programs are designed to have a long-term impact with the goal of reducing recidivism, and jail numbers likely will remain high.
Linder said deputies are told to issue a notice to appear in court instead of making an arrest on things such as multiple convictions of driving without a license.
"But if there's any risk of danger, of course we'll bring them in," he said.
Nowhere to go
On days when the population is up, there are a few options.
Staff can keep people in the intake area longer. During that time, they'll encourage other inmates to post bond if they can.
They also can set up cots for sleeping in the day room.
"Sometimes, it's just miserable until we can get a few people out of here," Miller said. "There are times when it's absolutely packed and there is no place to put them, so we'll put them in a holding cell. Or with women, when we have to put them in the day room, we'll put up fabric dividers, but they're still out in the open room."
As a last resort, they can call judges and ask if they'll lessen an inmate's sentence.
"It puts the judges and the courts in a tough situation," Linder said. "They felt the sentence was a necessary one and we're calling to ask if can be changed. It's not a way we like to go."
Eventually, officials said, reshuffling of inmates will no longer be viable and more space will be needed.
Linder said he will sit down with the county's Criminal Justice Coordination Council, made up of various local groups and agencies, to discuss court and jail issues, to begin the earnest discussion of overcrowding.
"We really need input — from the courts, mental health centers, law enforcement — from everyone who's going to have a stake in this," he said.
Yellowstone County took a major step in the expansion planning process in 2006, when it purchased 15 acres of land for $729,000 across from YCDF.
"When push comes to shove, the jail is going to have priority use for that land," Reno said. "We've kind of had an eye on this ball for a while now and that's a future site that we could use to help with jail expansion."
Funding likely would fall to county taxpayers in the form of a bond issue.
Reno said he'd like to see a two-part bond. As an example, he pointed to the county-owned MetraPark. Residents passed a construction bond for it, but the county still must subsidize 38 percent of its budget because it was never meant to pay for its own operations.
"To build is one thing, but in the grand scheme of things, building is the least of your expense," Reno said. "It's the ongoing operational cost. So I'd ask, 'Do you support an X number of millions to build?' and 'Do you support blank number for the operational cost?'"
With Linder representing the intersection of jail and county management, officials will be looking to him to take the lead and make the final call on what needs to be done.
He said it's most likely to come down to putting a bond issue out to the community, but that it could involve any number of solutions to the crowded quarters at the jail.
"We're looking at all of the options," he said. "I think that's generally what it boils down to, that are a lot of options. It's really, truly exploratory right now."