JEROME • The scent of Thursday’s freshly baked chocolate cake masked other smells that sometimes linger in the Jerome County Jail.
Box fans cooled the stagnant air while Mexican polka on the radio competed with a 24-hour TV news channel and towels strung from the ceiling caught drips from the pipes overhead. The sweet scent of cake offered a reprieve from the offense of sewage — a smell that sometimes wafts from the jail’s drain pipes, County Sheriff Doug McFall said.
“Jerome County has been making do with what we’ve got for years,” he said. Now, he hopes Jerome County voters will give jailers something new to work with.
On May 15, voters will be asked to approve a $10.7 million bond issue to fund a new jail. For the county to gain permission to sell bonds to fund the jail’s construction, a 66.7 percent supermajority of county voters will have to approve the ballot measure. The first time the county put jail funding on the ballot, in 2009, the measure failed by only 25 votes.
But support slipped in the county’s successive tries, as funding proposals again failed in May 2010 and November 2010, by 1.2 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively.
“We need a jail to protect our citizens,” Jerome County Commissioner Roger Morley said. “To be a responsible society we need a place to put those who offend the laws of our land.”
The current jail doesn’t cut it, Morley said. Regular citizens enter through the same door as inmates and the narrow hallways mean an inmate can reach out and touch a jail deputy as they walk by, no matter how close to the wall they walk.
“It has absolutely become a danger to the people working in there and it meets no Idaho jail standards,” Morley said.
The jail, built in 1974, is run down, outdated and too small, Morley said. It holds about 30 inmates, but Jerome County consistently has 50 to 80 inmates to deal with. The overflow inmates are housed at other jails, sleeping on rented beds.
In 2011 the county spent $250,000 to house inmates elsewhere, and has spent $185,000 so far in 2012, Morley said.
Schematics for a proposed new jail, measuring 38,650 square feet, show it having 130 beds with room for future expansion, if needed. The excess beds could be rented out to other counties with more inmates than they can handle, reversing Jerome County’s current situation, McFall said.
Dan Chatterton, who is running against McFall for Jerome County sheriff in the May 15 GOP primary, agrees the current jail isn’t ideal, but says county voters have already made their decision.
“The voters have already spoken three times,” he said. “What we’re told by our elected officials is that people who voted need to be educated. It’s almost a disrespectful way of saying you’re not smart enough to vote on this.”
Chatterton’s solution is to repair the problems in the current jail and make it last until a different answer is found.
A partnership with Gooding County once its new jail is built, looking into a private company to fund the construction of a Jerome jail, or simply building a smaller jail that would cost taxpayers less money are all possibilities, he said.
“Cut out the office space,” he said. “That cuts out $2 million.”
Money spent on transporting inmates to and from other jails may be expensive, but it is far less than it costs to run a new jail, Chatterton said.
“If conditions are so horrible, why not close the jail and get people out of there?” he asked.
Many of the dangers commissioners and McFall warn of are just scare tactics to justify new offices and a fancier jail, Chatterton said.
“They’ll say anything to get what they want,” he said.
But with well-documented compliance issues, county officials have called conditions at the jail a potential disaster they’ve been lucky enough to avoid so far.
On May 15, voters will again have their say about how they value those issues.