TWIN FALLS — Twin Falls County is once again looking into the possibility of using mobile trailers to house prisoners after a fire at the jail left more than a dozen inmates without beds.
Thirty-two inmates were displaced by a fire that broke out Nov. 24 from an electrical issue in one of the jail’s annexes. The county has since been able to find beds in the neighboring Jerome and Mini-Cassia jails for about 15 of those inmates, but crowding in other jails statewide has left the remaining 17 inmates sleeping in “boats” and cots on the floor of the Twin Falls jail.
While the Twin Falls jail’s population has begun to level out in recent months after experiencing a year of explosive growth, there are still roughly 50 Twin Falls inmates housed in other jails around the state on any given day. Last weekend’s blaze, which eliminated 30 of the jail’s 224 beds, has only exacerbated the crowding issue, officials say. As of Friday, the jail — now with 194 beds — held 218 inmates.
“This fire could not have come at a worse time,” Sheriff Tom Carter said. “It’s not like we weren’t already in a bind for a place to put people.”
Now county officials say they are reconsidering bringing in mobile pods to supplement the jail space, an idea they had previously considered but did not have plans to act on. The damaged annex, one of three installed in 1994 in what was meant to be a temporary fix to alleviate jail crowding, is likely beyond repair, officials say. And it will be at least three years before the county could see a new, larger jail built.
“I don’t know that you can fix it,” jail administrator Capt. Doug Hughes said of the damaged annex. “You’re talking about a modular home that’s had 30 people in it for 25 years.”
Even if the fire damage were fixable, the cost may not be worth it, Carter said. There isn’t any evidence that the electrical issue that started the fire was due to the age of the annex, but this isn’t the first time the temporary buildings have raised concerns about safety: a prisoner recently fell through the floor of the same annex.
“To put a whole lot of money into these particular buildings, I just don’t see that happening,” Carter said. “They all need to be gone.”
County Commissioner Jack Johnson, a former Jerome County Sheriff’s captain, said he would like to see the county replace all three annexes as soon as possible, rather than just the one damaged in the fire. The annexes contain 73 beds; Johnson has suggested installing pods with 100 beds in their place. “With the age of those, I think it would probably be better to replace them in the process just so we don’t have something catastrophic happen in the next three or four years,” Johnson said.
It’s unknown exactly what the pods would cost. An estimate in September put the price of trailers containing 140 beds at about $9 million, but it’s unlikely that the county would need so many beds to replace the annexes. Determining the cost will likely help county officials decide whether to look into buying or leasing the trailers, which are mobile and could be moved to another location once a new jail is built if necessary.
“What we know is we are going to have to do something, and probably sooner rather than later,” Carter said.