When it opened in the mid-1980s, Asotin County’s jail was built to accommodate 14 male and two female inmates.
Today, it’s crammed full with more than three times that many people.
You get the math.
It means jamming people into cells. There are people sleeping on floors. It means stretching a staff of 12 or 13 to the limits.
As long as inmates remain in custody of the jail, the county is responsible for their health and safety.
That is how it should be.
Jails are not prisons where convicted felons serve years behind bars. Jails are where people — usually too poor to post modest bonds — await trial. Jails are where offenders convicted of misdemeanors spend no more than a year in confinement.
You know these individuals. They live in your community. Possibly it’s a colleague at work who got caught driving drunk. Or a nephew with a drug problem who broke probation.
And if a sense of moral obligation does not move you, then perhaps a fear of litigation might.
At some point, it’s a good bet that civil rights issues will trigger a lawsuit, bringing the deficiencies of the Asotin County Jail to the attention of a judge — who then may impose new constraints on who sits in confinement and under what terms.
None of this is unique to Asotin County. Look across the country and you’ll find county jails and state prisons overwhelmed by the nation’s exploding inmate population.
What compounds Asotin County’s problems is its relatively impoverished tax base. Until recently, it lacked the resources to bring a consultant aboard. Even now, it has no architect who can provide answers about how to precisely meet the county’s needs.
As of now, you have a vague plan outlined by a task force of local officials. They want to build a new structure capable of holding about 150 people and expanding to house another 106. To pay for it, they want voters to pass a 0.3 percent sales tax surcharge. The measure needs 50 percent plus 1 to pass.
Voters who would blanch at the thought of paying more property taxes for a jail may go along with a sales tax surcharge. If nothing else, they know 59 percent of the sales taxes collected in Asotin County are paid by non-residents who come into town to shop at Walmart, Costco and elsewhere.
But between now and Oct. 18 — when vote-by-mail begins — jail proponents face a series of hurdles.
As the Tribune’s Kerri Sandaine noted last Sunday, trust is in short supply. When they approved a property tax levy to build the aquatic center, residents were told the facility would pay its own way. It didn’t. Attempts to prop it up with an initial sales tax surcharge failed when the Clarkston City Council withdrew its share of the receipts, prompting creation of a new taxing district and another surcharge.
In response, the jail task force says its proposal is extremely conservative. Its projected surcharge can weather a decline in the economy and still meet yearly bonding costs of about $900,000.
A 30-year contract binding the city of Clarkston’s share of the surcharge toward the jail bonds is supposed to answer concerns about a future city council abandoning its commitment.
What could go wrong?
The answer to that question, even the most enthusiastic supporter must concede, is thin.
You don’t know where the jail will wind up. The preferred site at Sixth Avenue and Evans Road is drawing opposition from neighbors. Choose a different location and the county’s costs may rise.
You can’t double or triple the size of the jail’s inmate population without a corresponding rise in staffing levels and overhead costs. The county says it will cover that, but the plan is built more on assurances than specifics.
And how realistic are the task force’s plans to generate more money by renting vacant jail cells to other counties and tribal entities?
But we’re not talking about a swimming pool, a library or even a new high school. A jail is a cornerstone. There are only so many people you can place on house arrest before deterrence becomes a hollow threat. There’s only so much money you can spend renting space from other county jails.
Trust us, the community is being told. Pass the sales tax surcharge and money will flow into an architectural review that delivers the all-too-necessary spade work before the county proceeds with design and construction.
Take that on faith, if you want.
Or hope for a better plan to emerge in a subsequent ballot measure.
But this problem won’t disappear.
Jamming so many people into a jail that is too old, too small and too decrepit borders on the inhumane. — M.T.