By Tim Eberly
Clayton "C.J." Quinnell Jr. is one of 24 inmates currently serving time in the Hill County Detention Center.
On Feb. 2, City Court Judge Joyce Perszyk sentenced Quinnell to 60 days in jail on charges of privacy in communications and obstructing a police officer. Quinnell pleaded guilty to both misdemeanors.
Before Quinnell was jailed, he had worked for a couple of months as a prep cook at Andy's Supper Club in Havre.
Within four hours of his incarceration, a manager from Andy's, Jesse Sande, called Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera, asking him if they could negotiate a work-release program for the hard-working 24-year-old.
"His employer called me and asked if there was anything I could do," Szudera said. "But there wasn't."
So Quinnell lost his job, and when the divorced father of three is released from the detention center on March 30, his finances will be in disarray. "I'm behind in child support because of (my incarceration)," he said.
"I had to replace him," said Sande, adding that Quinnell won't be rehired "unless somebody quits. I can't just fire somebody to get his job back."
Though it won't likely aid Quinnell's cause, Szudera is trying within the next three months to implement a work-release program for inmates in the Hill County Detention Center, allowing them to leave their jail cells each working day to maintain their employment.
"I'm not a bleeding heart," Szudera said Wednesday. "But I do realize that in our community there are some circumstances where these people have places to be that are very important in their personal lives."
The program, Szudera said, could also curb the negative impact a person's jail sentence has on his or her family.
"When somebody is incarcerated and doing time, who else is suffering from this?" Szudera said. "That other person suffering is usually a spouse or young children."
Szudera's concept is not original. When the new detention center opened in September 1999, a minimum-security dormitory room with seven bunk beds was included on the building's second floor for that very purpose.
Time-consuming repairs to the jail's sprinkler and monitoring systems, however, stalled the project, along with plumbing problems and the reprogramming of the smoke detectors.
"It has taken time to get the daily operations running smoothly," Les Osbourne, the detention center's administrator, said Wednesday.
With Osbourne at the helm since August, the detention center is now primed for the program. Szudera needs to get approval from Perszyk and Hill County Justice of the Peace Carol Chagnon. On Wednesday, both said in interviews that they would support the plan.
Szudera is proposing that eligible inmates be cleared to leave the jail a half-hour before their work shift. The inmate must then report back to the detention center within a half-hour after the end of his or her work shift.
"I wouldn't have a problem with that," said Jack Tretheway, manager of two Noon's convenience stores in Havre. "It keeps the people working. Some of us have a limited amount of staff."
To be eligible for the program, an inmate must be serving time for a misdemeanor offense, be employed at the time of his or her arrest, have a relatively clean criminal background and no disciplinary infractions while at the jail.
"I don't want to be releasing anybody that would be a detriment to any Hill County citizens," Szudera said.
The work-release program could be used for people convicted, for example, of driving under the influence. A first-time DUI offender must serve a mandatory 24-hour sentence, while a two-time DUI offender must spent at least 48 hours in jail. Serving jail time around a work shift, Szudera said, would be ideal in those instances.
"Basically you'll have people that will make a mistake," Osbourne said. "So why should they lose their job over all this stuff?"
If an inmate fails to report to the jail on time, Szudera said, "their work-release status would be revoked."
Judy Geldard, co-owner of the Siesta Motel, said she would not favor the work-release program for people convicted of more than one DUI. Geldard's 25-year-old daughter, Kelli, was injured by a drunk driver in Missoula two years ago. It was the driver's fifth DUI offense, Geldard said.
"I think the guy ought to be sitting in jail if he gets two DUIs," Geldard said today.
It costs taxpayers $47 a day to house one inmate. On average, 30 inmates occupy the detention center on a daily basis. To participate in the work-release program, inmates would be required to pay the full cost of their housing for the duration of their sentence.
"It's not going to cost the taxpayers money for housing the inmate and it will allow the inmate to continue his normal life during working hours," Szudera said.
Employers would benefit from the program too, Szudera said. Not only would they be able to retain an employee if they wished to do so, but it would prevent them from having to spend costly time to train a new worker.
Except for obtaining permission from Perszyk and Chagnon, Szudera only needs to install a monitor in the jail's dispatch center for the camera near the work-release dorm. Along with 14 beds, the area includes three metal picnic tables, four sinks, two showers, two toilets and two phones.
Quinnell is one of three inmates participating in the detention center's inmate worker program, which was implemented in August. The program allows participants to work off up to one-fourth of their sentences by doing a variety of chores at the detention center. In this program, they do not leave the premises.
Along with the two other inmates, Quinnell cleans the facility and does laundry when necessary. Each Thursday, they wash vehicles used by the sheriff's office. The program may get Quinnell home faster, but it won't pay his bills.