Photo by Corey Hockett | Lake County jail cell

Sheriff Don Bell worries about the state of Lake County’s jail, which like many in Montana, is regularly filled to capacity.

“My jail right now, everybody in there is on a felony charge. There’s no minor, misdemeanor people in my jail, so it’s really considered a max jail,” said Bell.

To put this in some perspective, county jails aren’t meant to house felony offenders after they receive a sentence, that’s the job of state prisons.

In Sheriff Bell’s 2016 annual report, the Lake County Jail processed 92 DUIs and 245 cases involving possession, distribution or production of illegal drugs. There were also 106 burglaries and 119 assaults, including 28 involving weapons.

For a county of under 30,000 people, Sheriff Bell’s office is busy.

But with only 42 beds — and priority going to locking up those arrested for violent crimes — Bell can’t throw all those people in jail, even though, the way he sees it, more people should spend some time there.

“Sometimes people need, I guess, an adult time out. They might only be there for a day, but it refocuses them, and all were gonna charge them with might be a disorderly conduct, but if we let them go they might commit a domestic, which changes their life forever,” said Bell.

When he and his deputies deal with drug-related crime, they’re often dealing with meth. And there are real concerns if jail provides the “adult time out” and help these drug users need. More than half of the prisoners in the state department of corrections need substance abuse treatment, according to a Montana Healthcare Foundation report. But before they get there, they’re often in the county jails. And that’s why Sheriff Bell’s big focus is building a bigger one.

“I mean it’s not uncommon to get somebody with a gram or two of meth and cite and release them. We dealt with a person here, I guess probably two months ago now, he got out of my jail, within an hour and a half he was at Wal-Mart trying to steal stuff. And he says ‘Aren’t you just gunna give me a ticket and send me on my way?’ He knew, that if he got caught that all he’s gunna do is get a ticket,” said Bell. “It’s frustrating for me being the sheriff, I’m supposed to keep the people safe as I can, and I just need a new jail so they’d be held accountable.”

Bell advocated building a new jail in Lake County in both his 2015 and 2016 annual reports, but the process has failed to gather steam beyond an exploratory committee.

But he’s still pushing it. And when he looked around for counties that have built bigger jails, he was impressed by what was happening about 270 miles south of him in Bozeman, where Gallatin County built and updated its jail six years ago.

“At one point they were the highest-rated, number one for the highest crime in the state of Montana. And so they did a bunch of research like we did and I think it took them four years, and now they’re not even on the list anymore,” said Bell.

The Gallatin County Detention Center holds about 150 people, but the goal there is about a lot more than housing the county’s criminals. Inmates there can choose Fresh Start, a voluntary treatment program offered to county inmates. It’s the first of its kind in Montana, and it’s aimed at addressing how people end up jail in the first place — especially if drug addiction’s involved.

“We see a lot of people coming into the jail on meth or coming off meth. You can see the decline in people, in their ability to have conversations and their social interactions. Inability to follow rules, in their appearance and obviously their self-esteem,” said Tiffani Pimley, coordinator for Fresh Start.

We see a lot of people coming into the jail on meth or coming off meth. You can see the decline in people, in their ability to have conversations and their social interactions
Tiffani Pimley, coordinator for Fresh Start

A big part of Pimley’s job consists of evaluating inmates and connecting them with the right set of programming for their specific needs.

“It’s AA, NA, spiritual components, there is yoga that comes in, journaling, we bring in a variety of people who go through a very lengthy training to be able to provide those services for people with the idea to get them connected while they’re here so that the connection can help them on the outside,” said Pimley.

Pimley also stays connected to many of the inmates after they’re released. Sometimes people just need an occasional phone call, but for others, Pimley will meet them downtown for a coffee and an update on their lives. She said this follow-up is crucial.

“Cause once they leave here, hitting the street with this list of stuff to do, and we just say ‘Good luck,’ that’s not setting them up for success either,” said Pimley.

She thinks inmates are more comfortable with her because she’s not an official part of the criminal system like a parole or probation officer, but simply a positive resource for offenders in need.

    Portrait of Sheriff Bell

    Photo by Corey Hocket | Sheriff Bell

All of these efforts are tied to reducing recidivism — the rate at which people who get out of jail commit more crimes that bring them back. In the two and a half years Pimley’s worked at the detention center, the recidivism rate dropped from 25 percent to 10 percent. She’s quick to point out that she only works with around 125 inmates a year, but within that population, she has seen results.

But one of the problems in Montana is no other county jail has a Fresh Start program. For those in other counties, only once an offender commits enough felonies to enter the state department of corrections does access to treatment open up.

Tim Conley is a clinical social worker, therapist and addiction specialist who, until 2014, was an associate professor of social work at the University of Montana. Conley focused his research and teaching on drug addiction. Since 2007, he’s had a contract to evaluate the success of the Nexus and Elkhorn drug treatment centers.  

“If you let people bounce in and out of the county jail system on drug-related charges or mental-health related charges and you don’t treat them or get them some sort of reasonable treatment, yeah it’s a revolving door, it’s expensive,” said Conley.

Nexus and Elkhorn are under the oversight of the Montana Department of Corrections and they house the state’s dedicated meth programs. Elkhorn, in Boulder, is for women and has spots for 42. Nexus, in Lewiston, is for men and has 82 beds. Offenders who get there do so after receiving a state-level sentence and an evaluation that takes into account the crime, addiction and mental health issues, level of security needed and offenders’ willingness to accept treatment.

Lake County road
Photo by Corey Hockett

“It does change their life.  In some respects, people who are like, ‘Screw you I don’t want your treatment,’ they never get to go there,” said Conley.

Instead, they go to places like the state prison for men at Deer Lodge. Among Conley’s 2017 findings, he concluded that nearly 80 percent of offenders attending Nexus finished a nine-month sentence — which means they stayed clean and did what was required of them to complete that treatment program. Eighty-five percent of those who completed their stay at Nexus went on to finish an additional six months at a pre-release center.

“That’s a pretty high completion rate for a therapeutic community-based treatment program that’s as intense as they are. You get a lot of buy in. The offenders work their time out there. They know it’s better than prison,” said Conley.

The cost per day at Nexus and Elkhorn is just four dollars more than it is at Montana State Prison, according to 2015 numbers published by the Montana DOC. Of course, there are treatment options that aren’t connected to state sentences.

“It’s like, ‘So what did you pay for your treatment,’ ‘well, felony on my record for life, yours?’, ‘oh $27,000 at Recovery Center Missoula.’ I would rather have paid the money, you know? You’ve waited to the point in the development of that disease that that person is committing felony crimes before they get the residential treatment they need,” said Conley.

Conley says that while there are some good options for treating addicts within the prison system, Montana lacks the workforce to treat addicts before they reach the point of committing felonies. According to a Department of Health and Human Services report, there are 16 counties in Montana without a social worker, 18 without an addiction counselor and 31 without a psychologist.

For some, this lack of services mean they only get help once they are headed to prison.

“If you’re not DOC, too bad, so sad. So it’s like you have to completely destroy the rest of your life before you can get good treatment,” said Terri Griffith, who spent three years and nine months in the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings on meth charges.

Griffith was released from prison in 2005.  She’s currently a manager at Three Rivers Mental Health Center in Missoula, and is working on getting her addiction counselor license.

But despite earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana and maintaining her sobriety for more than fifteen years, being a convicted felon carries significant stigma.

“By the time you’re a felon everything in life is ten times more difficult to achieve,” she said. “To get a job you know there’s that box, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ Well you have to put yes because if you lie you’ll lose your job, however, if you check it you probably won’t even get an interview. There’s places that will absolutely not rent to felons, there’s places that won’t give a felon a mortgage to buy a house. It doesn’t give a person a chance to be successful,” said Griffith.

Griffith studied social work under Conley at UM and graduated in 2014. She was in a formal mentorship where she completed nine credits of supervised policy research on the evolution of meth sentencing and criminal codes.

As Conley’s student, she had access to what the numbers there show. Conley says a continued commitment to treatment has to be way forward for corrections in Montana and elsewhere.

“You cannot punish an addict into recovery. I will put that on my gravestone. All it does is piss them off,” said Conley. ■

Rick Rowan
Rick Rowan grew up outside New York City. Graduating in spring 2017, Rick is interested in reporting on state house policy making and the people it impacts.