September 26, 2012

Nowhere to put the prisoners

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

The oil industry continues to tax the western North Dakota law enforcement infrastructure in spite of efforts made by McKenzie County and Watford City to expand and adjust to the boom.
The Watford City Police Department and the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Department have continued to add policemen and deputies to their rosters in order to increase patrols and respond to the need for more police presence.
However, without available jail space, these advancements only get the area law enforcement so far.
According to Watford City Police Chief Slade Herfindahl and McKenzie County Sheriff Ron Rankin, the McKenzie County Jail runs out of room to house prisoners on an almost daily basis.
“There is no room as of today, and it’s Friday, which is not a good position to be in coming up on the weekend,” states Herfindahl.
“There are more people being arrested than our jail has capacity for,” states Rankin. “We don’t have the space to keep up.”
One reason, according to Rankin, is that the jail is in desperate need of a remodel.
“We have 11 jail cells, but two of them are unusable, because the plumbing equipment is so old that it doesn’t work,” states Rankin. “We have had the plumber out several times, and finally he told us he couldn’t fix it and we would have to order replacement parts, which are no longer available.”
According to Ron Rankin, the remodel will fix those cells, giving the McKenzie County Law Enforcement Center the full use of all its jail cells, as well as updated surveillance and dispatch equipment.
These improvements, Rankin states, will help the Sheriff’s Department tremendously. However, it will still only go so far toward opening up jail capacity for McKenzie County, which doesn’t just affect the Sheriff’s Department and Watford City Police Department, but the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the North Dakota Game and Fish and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“Whenever arrests are made in McKenzie County, they bring their prisoners here,” states Rankin.
One past solution has been to take prisoners to the Williams County Jail in Williston, which was updated in 2008 and now has the capacity to house 100 prisoners. But unfortunately for Williams County and the surrounding counties, that correctional center has also begun reaching its limit.
“In the last six months, this place has gone completely crazy and we’ve become overbooked,” states Lieutenant Royce Crone, assistant administrator of the Williams County Correctional Center. “We can’t handle the amount of people anymore.”
According to Crone, Williams County has willingly housed McKenzie County’s overflow in the past. Now, however, they have had to start turning McKenzie County prisoners away.
“Watford City and McKenzie County were bringing in people almost every day,” states Crone. “Currently, our numbers are in the mid-90s, and we can’t take anyone in when we are that close to our max.”
Crone states that around a year ago, the norm for Williams County was anywhere from 35 to 50 prisoners, and now it can range from 70 to 98.
“When the Correctinal Center was built it had a 50 year expectancy,” states Crone. “Now it’s full.”
Crone states that the Williams County Correctional Center is looking to add a 20-bed dorm area onto the jail to help increase the correctional center’s capacity.
That may not be enough to help with McKenzie County’s current problem, though.
“When you go to break up a bar fight and have to make an arrest only to have no place to put the person, it is a problem. And almost a daily issue,” states Herfindahl. “We wind up having to release people on bond and a ‘promise to appear’ in court.”
Herfindahl also states the issue of not having a place to house prisoners interferes with his ability to work warrants.
“This ultimately filters down to the community, and affects it,” states Herfindahl.
Rankin, in hopes of relieving some pressure on the McKenzie County Law Enforcement Center, has sought contracts with at least three other counties, and is pursuing another contract with a facility in eastern Montana.
Additionally, the Northwest Judicial District has revised its bond schedule in an attempt to help lessen the overcrowding of western North Dakota jails.
According to Johnson, where before a prisoner would have to wait to post bond until he had the money or the court was open, for certain common offenses, they can now agree to conditions of release, without posting bond, sign a Promise to Appear, and be released.
“In the case of driving while intoxicated, for example, the person would normally have to post bond, which is $500. Now, they can forgo paying the money if they agree to follow conditions of release like taking a breath-alcohol test everyday. As long as they don’t violate those conditions and they appear in court, they don’t have to pay,” states Johnson.
While these solutions will help and have helped, according to Rankin, they will only get  us so far as long as the population continues to increase.
“Every county that can only house 10 prisoners or less is looking for help right now,” states Rankin. “And our numbers are still going up. The work load won’t decrease until things start to level off, and there’s no telling when that will happen.”