by Abigail St. Lawrence
Let me start by acknowledging that I am far from a pureblood liberal. I get cranky about bureaucracy and can give you a list of governmental offices I think could be cut. As a single person and homeowner, I can be stingy about my taxes because the burden of paying it falls all on me; no one else pitches in when the property tax bill comes due. However, I also believe that government services are there to do what we as individuals cannot, and paying my taxes to provide for those services is the cost of living in a civilized society and enjoying all the benefits that society provides me. Among those government services are public safety, law enforcement, and corrections. Those services are falling short in Lewis and Clark County, which is why I support the jail levy.
Let me also say that I am by no means an unconditional cheerleader for law enforcement, and I believe our corrections system has some fundamental flaws. I proudly and generously support the ACLU of Montana, which has identified in spades the shortfalls of the current Lewis and Clark County Detention Center. I am a lobbyist for the Montana Association of Christians, which advocates for a humane corrections system and support for incarcerated people so they can return to their families and communities in a productive and safe manner. I also lobby for the Montana Innocence Project and know through that work that law enforcement gets it wrong sometimes.
However, the fact that law enforcement and the corrections system are not perfect doesn’t change the need for updated technology in the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, additional staff to keep both county employees and inmates safe, pretrial diversion to reduce pre-trial jail time for those who simply cannot make bail, and risk reduction to interrupt the cycle of incarceration.
The bottom line is that the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center doesn’t serve anyone—law enforcement, inmates, or the public. Inmates are sleeping in hallways, which isn’t safe for them or for detention center staff. The detention center is understaffed, making for hazardous working conditions for the staff and delayed response time for inmate needs. Overcrowding leads to such “creative” solutions as housing inmates in the library and hallways, meaning that legal counsel and mental health providers don’t have secure and confidential locations to do their work. The women’s pod is consistently filled beyond capacity, making the conditions perhaps most dangerous and inhumane for the female inmates. The technology to operate things like security cameras and doors is broken and outdated, meaning inefficient and unsafe conditions. None of this is workable or, in some cases, even legal. And the jail levy includes plans to address all of it.
But don’t take my word for it. Go see the conditions for yourself. Call Sargent Allan Ireland at 447-8235 to arrange for a tour. Read up on the county plans for the levy at http://www.lccountymt.gov/bocc/dcbi.html. And check out what the ACLU of Montana has to say about what needs to happen in our jails at https://www.aclumontana.org/en/issues/jails-and-prisons. Then, when your ballot arrives, vote YES for the jail levy and YES for justice.
Abigail St. Lawrence is an attorney in private practice and a lobbyist for social justice and health care organizations, ranchers, and builders in Montana—basically, someone everyone loves to hate. Her fellow members of Citizens for Justice thought she would be the perfect punching bag to write a blog post in support of the jail levy.