By Bethany Carlson
Benton County’s jail was built in 1976 as a temporary facility. At the time there were plans to build a regional jail along I-5. Jail commander Captain Diana Rabago said, “That never happened, so this jail has just been utilized ever since. So a building that was meant to last 10 years—now we’re going on 40.”
The entire roof had to be replaced last year, and now the showers are leaking.
“The mortar and brick is starting to decay in some of the cells. We had a situation where an inmate actually was able to just crumble part of the wall out and you could actually see light through it,” said Rabago.
The main challenge, however, is the size of the jail. It was originally built to hold 27 prisoners, but now it houses up to 40. Two holding cells are the bottleneck of the jail; new prisoners waiting to be booked, inmates at risk for suicide, and prisoners being disciplined must all filter through those two cells. Once the waiting and holding cells are full, the jail closes. Rabago explained, “If they arrest someone out on the street and we’re closed, the deputy or officer has to wait across the street with their arrest and basically watch them until something clears up over here.” In 2013, the jail was closed 47 times with a total of 179 hours closed.
“When we close the jail that has a ripple effect. Deputies aren’t patrolling the streets, because they’re waiting with their inmate. It backs the whole system up.”
The jail’s forced release policy frees minimum-security inmates to make room for more serious arrests. The records of forced releases are public on their website: 187 prisoners have been force-released from 2011 to 2013. Their charges include DUI, theft, and drug violations. When asked if forced release has ever freed an inmate who was a threat to themselves or the community, Rabago stated frankly, “I would have to say it’s happened. I’m sure it has.”
When new prisoners are booked, they are assigned a matrix score that takes into account their current charges, criminal history, and whether they’re employed or on probation. People whose scores are low enough are booked, given a release agreement with a court date, and let loose. Hundreds of people are matrix-released every year, with 184 already in the first three months of 2014. The jail also has a policy that people who turn themselves in within five days of a missed court appearance will be issued a new court date, rather than being held.
Then there’s day room scheduling headaches.
“If you have a maximum security inmate that you can only get up by themselves, with no one else, you have to find time in every day to get that inmate up, where a deputy can watch them, and give them time out of their cell,” said Rabago.
The jail contracts with other county jails to rent up to 40 additional beds, spending around $1.3 million every year on contracted beds in jails in Yamhill, Lincoln, and Linn counties. There are an average of 38 prisoners in rented beds at any given time. Rabago said that the Benton County jail itself averages 35 inmates, because it houses inmates of different security levels.
It costs around $150 a day to house an inmate. Contract beds cost $80.27 a day, which increases by 3 percent every year. Transporting inmates to other locations and back, for court dates or attorney meetings, also causes expense and inconvenience. Rabago emphasized that building a new jail would lower the cost of housing an inmate locally, in addition to reducing the issues of forced release and jail closures.
“I think it only makes sense that instead of sending $1.3 million a year outside of our community to house our inmates elsewhere, that we keep that money here.”