Ward County Jail in need of expansions

Expansion of the Ward County Jail has been discussed for years, and is being considered again, but for now county officials are making do with what they have.

“The commissioners want to move ahead very quickly now (with expansion),” said Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski.

The current jail, which was built in 1984, was built in what Lt. Paul Olthoff of the jail described as “the old way,” with hard partitions between various cell blocks and the different floors. That design is very staff-intensive to maintain all the duties.

The current expansion design, while still only in speculative stages, is more open, allowing one centralized jail officer to observe four blocks from one vantage point.

But of more immediate concern is that the jail is operating about at capacity, Kukoski said.

“Today we’re at 91,” Kukowski said Dec. 19 of the jail’s inmate numbers, which tops out at 104 inmates. “We’ve been running in the 90s lately but today we’re at 91. Sometimes over the weekend we’ve run a little high but we try to get them out of here as fast as we can. We get them to whatever jurisdiction has the arrest warrants for them or we’ll try to get them into court as fast as we can.

“Sometimes we even call the judges and have them look at some of the charges,” he added, “and have them come in over the weekend and set the bond if it’s a major offense. So, then they (inmates) would have a chance to bond out.”

The expansion project’s initial design would allow for an additional 56 more inmates and would be built in such a way to allow for upward expansion if that’s needed in the future.

“Tentatively our plans are to add 56 cells. Eighty percent of those will have to be double-bunk. You have to allow for so many single-cells so that they (can be separated). By keeping it on one level we reduce our manpower costs immensely because every time you add a floor you have to add employees to watch the inmates on that floor. So, if you can remove that you can cut down on the number of employees you have and it becomes much more efficient to run and we want to run it as efficiently as we possible can to reduce the cost to the taxpayer.”

In years past, before the influx of population to the area, the Ward County Jail ran with a staff of about 25 to watch over 60 to 70 inmates at a time. Now that the facility hovers around inmate numbers in the 90s they’ve had to add four more staff members to bring the total to 29, making it 31 with jail commander Capt. Penny Erickson and Olthoff.

“It’s hard to deal with this many inmates but the staff is doing a good job taking care of anything that goes on,” Olthoff said.

Ward County, of course, isn’t the only place dealing with overcrowding and being forced to look at new solutions.

There are talks farther west, in Williams County, of creating a combined correctional facility expansion onto that county’s jail to serve the needs of itself and nearby counties, but those are just talks right now.

Likewise, farther south, Burleigh County may be considering an expansion.

“West of (U.S. Highway) 83 is experiencing this growth much more than to the east,” Kukowski said.

“With the increase in the population and the volume of traffic that we have, we all have needs,” he added. “We’ll help out as many jurisdictions as we can until we reach a point where we can’t take it anymore.”

Daily reality

An expansion could help mitigate some of the problems the jail currently has.

“Just the sheer numbers in the blocks will go down, so that will be a help,” Olthoff said.

The reason for hosting fewer inmates per block is inmates can’t be housed just anywhere. Separation between the different types of inmates is key.

Those awaiting their initial appearance will have to be separated from those serving out a sentence. Likewise, those bound for the state penitentiary need to be separated from the county and territorial inmate population.

Then there are the special needs.

“They (inmates) are allowed recreation time every day,” Kukowski said. “In inclement weather we either have to go down into the basement to do the rec, or we have to go up onto the roof when it’s nice outside and do the rec out on the roof.”

Moving inmates from floor to floor is very time consuming. The initial plans for the expansion buildings allow for recreation facilities on each floor.

“One of the more fortunate things that we see being located where we’re at and having the jail attached to the current facility is that we’re right next door to the court,” Kukowski said.

That saves time getting inmates properly dressed for winter, transporting them by van to a distant courthouse, redressing them for inside. That’s a problem the Ward County Jail doesn’t currently have, and won’t have with the proposed expansion.

Moving forward

At a Jan. 6 meeting, county commissioners will talk with architects and get a move on further steps. First will come soil sampling and other precursory things in order to make sure the chosen spot is ready for building foundations and the like.

But a very important issue will be discussion on whether to hire a construction manager at risk, or CMAR.

Kukowski has been very in favor of the CMAR idea, where one developer is involved from the beginning stages to make sure that the budget they propose will not be exceeded, because they’re “at risk” if it does.

“I did some research on people who had used a CMAR and they were all happy that they did,” he said, and had spoken much more about it at the Dec. 17 commission meeting.

Commission Chairman Jerome Gruenberg, who works for Mattson Construction, the general contractor for the construction of the Ward County office building project, has been the most opposed to the CMAR idea on the board, with other commissioners seeming to generally favor it or not yet expressing an opinion.