By Alan Sorensen
Prisoners in the detention area that dominates Hill County's new Justice Center still have to sleep on small, hard bunks in small, cramped cells. They still can't smoke and have no privacy when using the toilet or taking a shower, but there is evidence that the meals have gotten more substantial.
Regardless, conditions at the new facility are said to be immeasurably better than at the 85-year-old Hill County Jail it replaced.
Within the next week or so, the inmates will have an expanded library to go along with the recreation center, complete with a basketball hoop, that they already use. And they still have access to television and telephones.
The most notable addition, though, is probably the program room just off the library where outside people and groups can meet with inmates. Already expressing interest in using the room to reach inmates are representatives of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, Havre Ministerial Association, and Havre Public Schools' adult basic education program.
"We treat all the programs the same," Sheriff Tim Solomon said.
Anyone who wants to be part of a meeting at the detention center has to submit to a background check. That means providing their names, social security numbers and other personal information.
"It's security for the people coming into our jail," Solomon said. "We do the background check, then we do an ID form that entitles them to enter into the facility for their purposes."
Just exactly when each group will meet is being worked out as groups ask and are allowed to participate.
"That's what we're trying to figure out," he said. "A particular time and evening for each group on the program."
Undersheriff Don Brostrom went to the Havre Ministerial Association upon association president Pastor Steve Flatau's request to work out a schedule for churches. Brostrom also is working out a deal with the Havre Public Schools adult education program to provide some academic programs for the inmates.
"There's no way we could do this before," Solomon said. "It's a great start to do some of the intervening we've wanted to do for years.
"That's what we want to do, intervene into some of the problems of these people."
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were held at the old jail for a few months about 15 years ago. They were small gatherings that Solomon believes met in the jail's booking area.
As a county jail, most of the inmates move in and out rather quickly, but sometimes state prisoners can remain in jail for months while awaiting trial or placement in state facilities.
Visitors will use the front entrance, but Solomon warns that parking may be at a premium once the new sheriff's office opens next door to the justice center. Even now on visitor days, he said, the parking in front of the justice center is at a premium.
"When we start getting numbers of prisoners, it will be harder to find parking spaces, I think, with people in and out."
Brostrom said that it will be up to each group to determine which people it wants to participate in the jail-house sessions. Then those members of participating groups applying for a volunteer position will fill out permission slips for sheriff's office personnel to conduct background checks. The background checks should be completed pretty quickly.
"We do it locally here. The dispatcher will do it through NCIC (National Crime Information Center), usually, as the dispatchers have time to do them," Brostrom said. "We'll bring them up in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.
Once they're approved by Sheriff Solomon, the volunteers will be given a sheet to familiarize themselves with jail rules.
"It will be an orientation of what they can and can't do and what they can have and can't have in this facility," Ross said.
"We try to limit what they bring in," Brostrom said.
Some items visitors may consider harmless that will be banned by detention staff include wallets, car keys, pens, spiral notebooks, and other items of importance or that can be used as weapons. Large bottles or cups of pop also will be discouraged, because the inmates may get upset at not having pop, too.
They'll also be issued photo ID cards that will be kept at the dispatch center between uses. The visitors will be given their ID cards upon entry and turn them back into dispatch upon leaving.
Staff will limit how many people can attend each meeting.
"In that room, we're going to try to limit it to five outside people and eight inmates," Brostrom said. "That's how many we can sit in the room and it's a manageable group if we have to move them for any reason. When you get 20 to 25 people in a group, they're a little harder to manage."
Brostrom said members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were the first to approach the sheriff's department about making the inmate visits. The first AA meeting was scheduled for Nov. 7, but was scrubbed because the volunteers' IDs still require the volunteers' signatures before lamination and placement at the center.
Jamie Ross, chief detention officer, said he's pleased with opportunities the detention offers inmates.
"I think we're improving the conditions in giving them more options to better themselves, instead of just locking them in, having them sit there doing their time," Chief Detention Officer Jamie Ross said. "If we get them started, maybe they'll continue with some of these programs.
"Even if they don't follow up when they get out of jail, maybe they'll recognize that they have a problem, ... see they have other opportunities and this will give them the opportunity to do different things with their lives."
Margie Sylvester, lead teacher with adult basic education, said she hopes to offer inmates adult GED prep courses and academic basic skills. Her program is not to be confused with the community adult ed evening program that offers area residents diverse courses such as quilting, fly tying and dancing.
Sylvester isn't sure just when the program will get off the ground and suspects that it might not get going until after the first of the year.
"At this point, it's probably a little premature," she said. "I would like to get something going to enroll some people out there..., but it would depend on their time of incarceration and things like that."
Like any education program, this program needs students to work.
"It depends on a level of interest, and how many are interested and how long they'll be in and things like that," she said. "Until I meet with (Brostrom), I won't know what we're going to do.
"And then maybe he can tell me who would be interested and how many and what time we'd be looking at."
Pastor Flatau, pastor of Havre Assembly of God Church, said he invited Brostrom to the Havre Ministerial Association's meeting last week to explain the options for setting up the ministry in the jail
"My thought is that people within our churches might be willing to take this up as a ministry that they can participate in," Flatau said. "They don't have to be ministers, but they have to submit to a background (check). We can help facilitate whatever it takes to get that to happen, so that's the idea behind it."
Brostrom said it's up to the ministerial association to decide how to proceed, whether to have multidenominational meetings or to assign each church a different week. Any out-of-town churches that might be interested in getting involved would be directed to the Ministerial Association, he said.
Pastor Mark Baer of the First Church of the Nazarene in Havre reportedly expressed a strong interest in getting involved with the church meetings.
"It's going to take a little work to get that set up, but once that's done, it should work well," Flatau said.
The different groups that visit the inmates will probably be allowed to leave some of their literature in the library. Brostrom said the Ministerial Association members already mentioned contacting the Gideons about making a contribution of Bibles.
Anyone interested in getting his community group or agency involved with an inmate program is invited to call Sheriff Solomon or Undersheriff Brostrom at 265-2512.