TWIN FALLS — The Twin Falls County Jail is overflowing with prisoners — and the rapidly growing inmate population shows no signs of slowing.
On Thursday afternoon, there were 240 inmates in the 224-bed jail. The intake block alone held 28 men, 16 beds and one toilet.
With the jail holding as many as 260 prisoners at a time, county officials have begun to look into expanding the facility, a process expected to take years. In the meantime, jail staff are struggling to make room for the influx of inmates.
The problem of overcrowding is a fairly recent one for Twin Falls County. Last year, the jail held a steady population of about 180 people, with a high of about 200. Toward the end of the summer that number begin to climb, and the average length of stay jumped from 14 days to 22 days.
Capt. Doug Hughes, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Security Services Division, attributes the explosion to two main factors: a rise in local felony cases and crowding in state prisons.
Felony cases filed by the Twin Falls County prosecutor’s office have gone up 19 percent this year alone, as the Times-News reported this week. More than 85 percent of the jail’s current population has been charged with a felony. Those inmates typically stay at the jail longer because of high bonds and a longer legal process.
Now many are staying even longer than usual due to overcrowding elsewhere in the state. With state prisons over capacity, some prisoners are remaining at the Twin Falls County jail for as long as 90 days after they’ve been sentenced.
“With all those factors in place, it’s creating kind of a housing nightmare,” Hughes said.
The county has hired LCA Architects to explore preliminary options for expansion. In a meeting last week, commissioners and representatives from the sheriff’s office weighed the pros and cons of expanding the jail downtown versus building a new facility elsewhere.
“I think that we need to have everything on the table,” Commissioner Don Hall said in a phone conversation. “We want to have the options open for the community to help guide us through that process.”
To sufficiently accommodate the growing inmate population over the next 30 years, a county report recommended that the new jail include up to 400 beds.
In the coming months, the county expects to assemble a citizens committee to review the expansion options.
While the county doesn’t have a set timeline for deciding on a design and starting construction, it’s sure to be a lengthy process.
Jail staff say an expansion can’t come soon enough.
“They can think about what happens in 2020,” Sgt. Jessica Guevara said. “We’re dealing with these problems every day.”
Guevara noted that she would especially like to see additional holding cells in the expanded jail. Sometimes, when there are no more holding cells available, staff handcuff new arrivals to the welcome desk.
Hughes would like to have more space for programming and services, as well as larger kitchen and laundry facilities. He’s hopeful that additional educational opportunities and drug and alcohol programming could help bring down recidivism rates.
In the meantime, the jail staff are making do with limited beds and space. Some prisoners without beds use plastic “boats,” or temporary beds. Some sleep on mattresses on the floor. Others are shipped to Blaine County and other jails around the state.
This isn’t the first time the jail has faced severe crowding. In 2005, similar population levels led the county to introduce specialty programs such as drug and mental health courts.
“I think that trying to get some people out on lower-class, non-violent crimes is a way to kind of curb that for a period of time,” Hughes said. “But obviously that’s not going to be a fix-all, save-all type deal. It would be more of a Band-Aid.”