The wheels of a Butte Detention Center office chair roar as they speed from one side of the small, horseshoe-shaped housing control room to another. Its keeper on duty, Sean Brown, is responsible for pushing dozens of buttons on wooden panels and clicking pixelated shapes on a computer screen that open and close every door inside and out of the county jail.
Brown is the eyes and hands of the overcrowded, high-security operation for 9 hours. He says detention officers are busier than most people realize, but he loves it.
“This is a good job for someone my age,” Brown, a 22-year-old from Butte, said. “You learn a lot about a different side of life that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see.”
Brown is one of 27 officers at the detention center. The jail, built in 2004, is designed to house 72 long-term inmates, though it can technically hold more if you count the temporary holding and isolation cells. Today, it consistently houses about 100 inmates, often doubling a cell or pod’s intended capacity.
Through the windows of housing control, which is upstairs in the middle of five inmate living quarters, the jail looks like a laboratory testing a social experiment. Two men are running laps around the basketball half-court. One pod of inmates is lounging around circular tables, silently watching television. Another pod is gathered in small groups at tables, talking, reading or playing chess. Another is mostly empty, some inmates in their cells and some pacing the common area. It’s a sterile, socially denounced place filled with people doing incredibly natural and socially acceptable things.
“The jail is not like what you see in the movies,” Detention Center Director Mark Johnson said. “All of these guys aren’t bad people. The majority of them are good people who made bad decisions.”
Johnson has been working in the county jail for almost 19 years. As he walks around the building, he talks about how staff have to be creative to house the 30 or more extra inmates. They’ve turned meeting and changing rooms into cells and squeezed extra cots into already maxed-out areas.
“A lot of these pods used to have 16 beds with eight guys. Now there’s 20 to 25 people in the pod,” Johnson said. “It definitely creates more tension.”
Johnson says times have changed since he started at the center, not only numbers wise. There are people starting to do harder drugs at younger ages, Johnson said, and officers deal with mental illness much more than they used to. Sometimes they have 10 people sitting in protective custody from themselves, waiting to go to Warm Springs State Hospital.
“Putting extra beds in here doesn’t get rid of these problems. These people need help. But when there’s nothing out in the community for them, they have no place else to go,” Johnson said.
The detention center is losing a lot of money as costs for medical treatment and food increase with the numbers, Johnson said. For the 2017-18 fiscal year, the county jail spent $354,993 of its $2.7 million budget on food and medical services. Undersheriff George Skuletich, who oversees the county jail’s operations, says he’s requested $389,747 for the next fiscal year, but it hasn’t been approved yet.
Officer John Gardipee, who is responsible for ordering inmate prescriptions, sorts cardboard, plastic pop-out pill packages. He says inmates pay up to $10 for their meds and the jail foots the rest of the bill. One of the medications in his hand costs more than $400.
Gardipee has been with the jail for almost 9 years. In that time, he says he’s seen an increase in prescriptions in general, but especially for addiction and mental health-related drugs. He says the jail also goes through a ton of oral numbing gel for bad teeth. At least half of the inmates at the detention center are on one or more prescriptions, he said.
Johnson expresses similar views. He says they are not dealing with a healthy population, and as their caretaker, the jail is responsible to treat their needs. Each inmate sees a nurse within 24 hours of arriving at the detention center for a physical and mental evaluation, and all of the prescriptions the inmates say they are on are validated.
As Johnson talks, he stresses that these are not just the Butte Detention Center’s problems — these issues exist statewide. The Montana Department of Corrections constantly struggles with overcrowding, and many of their inmates are housed in county jails, creating a domino effect. Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards mandated that people facing misdemeanor charges would no longer be booked in their jail last month, just before a four-hour pod riot caused about $10,000 in damage.
“Don’t think this is Butte’s problem, it’s a problem everywhere. Butte’s overcrowding is not as bad as other places,” Johnson said. “A lot of jails are worse because they’re pushed until they break. We are at that point. We can’t push much more.”
Although Johnson says Butte is close to its breaking point, he feels the detention center is moving in the right direction with the services it provides. The county jail has a mental health and an addiction case worker inmates can request to meet with. Butte has one of five pre-release centers in the state, designed to help inmates who do not pose a threat to public safety make a smooth transition back into Butte society when they are out of custody in a community-based correctional setting. City Court Judge Jerome McCarthy recently launched a community service program designed to provide those charged with non-violent, misdemeanor crimes an alternative to jail time and the “black hole” of fines. The city’s 24/7 program holds felony DUI holders accountable with daily breathalyzer tests to keep them out of custody.
“Public officials are working hard to think outside of the box for solutions. They’re really trying to do the right thing,” Johnson said.
These officials are working their butts off, Johnson emphasizes. That's the precedent they set, contrary to the drunken, high-crime stereotype the city often is tagged with.
"Butte's got this history of being a rough and tough town. I think that's the hype. I don't believe that's what this town is really all about."