BILLINGS – It’s an issue that’s widely discussed in Billings and throughout Yellowstone County, the jail is over capacity and needs more space.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman invited the Billings Mayor and City Council for a tour, allowing them to hear about and see some of the ongoing issues at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
“We have a very serious crime problem in Billings and in Yellowstone County, and the jail is a critical part of the solution. We have a lot of serious over crowding and it is important to understand some of the things that contribute to the problem,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole, who was in attendance, along with Council Members Kendra Shaw and Pam Purinton.
After the tour, Cole said he believes a delay in the justice system is perhaps the biggest element behind the overcrowding.
Currently, the inmates with the longest stay at the jail have been there just over three years.
Ronald and Laura Mink were booked on deliberate homicide charges on Mar. 21, 2019.
“This is not a prison. This is a detention facility. It’s supposed to be short term. But it has turned into a place that holds long term inmates,” said Mayor Cole.
Council Member Shaw was interested in going on the tour to find out how can the city assist.
“We passed two safety levies in Billings that are making a difference locally, but it’s not going to touch the jail. It’s not going to touch the public defender’s office. Yet, our local police department still deals with the consequences,” said Council Member Shaw.
The jail would ideally hold 434 inmates. But at the time of the tour, it had 550.
Having roughly 120 inmates more than they’re meant to have, is taking a toll on employees.
Before the tour began, Undersheriff Sam Bofto and Facility Commander Lt. Jason Valdez spoke to the group about their struggle to recruit and retain detention officers.
“I thought it was really interesting to talk to them about what skills people could achieve from working at the jail for two years and they could apply it somewhere else,” said Council Member Shaw.
Undersheriff Bofto and Lt. Valdez said the jail is the perfect place to begin a career in law enforcement.
Shaw was interested in figuring out how to educate the community on other career opportunities that can come with serving as a detention officer.
“Yes, it’s difficult work, it’s important work, but you don’t have to necessarily go into law enforcement. You might have a variety of interests. This could be something you do for a few years and it’ll give you a better perspective of our community,” said Council Member Shaw.
Following the tour, Council Member Purinton felt the Billings community and all of Yellowstone County needs to make a financial investment in the jail and press the Montana Judicial Branch to make changes.
“We have to put teeth into all of our criminal justice system and work toward some sort of program where these people aren’t going through the revolving door,” said Council Member Purinton.
This was her second tour of the jail, with the first one being at the start of her term. Now that she’s more than two years into her first term, she wanted to look at the jail with a new perspective.
“I know the legislators are working on it, the county attorneys are working on it, so there are good people that are working on it,” Council Member Purinton said about the status of the judicial system.
Looking past the issues, Purinton praised detention center staff.
“I think they do a good job here. They do the best they can do with the resources they have,” she said.
Considering the women’s wing added in 2018 and other screening technology at the jail, Yellowstone County is considered the most technologically advanced jail in the state.
“When I hear the question ‘Who has the best jail? Which county?’ And they say here, then I say, good, I would believe it,” said Council Member Purinton.