As a statewide prison dilemma unfolds in Yellowstone County

Earlier this month, one of more than 500 people being held at the Yellowstone County Detention Center attempted to jump from the second floor of his cell block. He had bedding formed into a noose around his neck. A prison officer, one of about 50 staff at the prison, pulled him back in time.

Because inmates are seven times more likely to threaten suicide or self-harm than those outside, according to national data on American prisons, one of several expectations of YCDF staff is to prevent inmates from harming themselves or others.

For years, however, jail administrators in Yellowstone County have been caught in the same vices squeezing prisons nationwide. It has too many inmates and not enough jailers.

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Lieutenant Robert Lester at YCDF

A holding cell is photographed Thursday at the Yellowstone County Detention Center.


“It’s tough, but we’re doing our best,” said Mike Linder, Yellowstone County Sheriff.

Across the country, the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused prison populations to plummet, according to reports from the Associated Press and the nonprofit Marshall Project. As measures to prevent the spread of the virus eased, local judges’ orders to keep prisons from overcrowding were relaxed and arrests rose again. In some cases, prison populations exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

Coinciding with the pandemic and the subsequent surge in prison populations across the country, law enforcement experienced an historic spate of retirements and resignations. In June 2021, the Police Executive Review Forum think tank published an analysis of the staffing levels of nearly 200 agencies over the past year. The responding agencies reported an overall increase in churn rates of 18% and retirement rates of 45%.

Since the beginning of the decade, insufficient resources in Montana’s criminal justice system have led to federal investigations, lawsuits and deaths. In March, the Lee Montana State News Bureau reported that 38 people incarcerated at the Lake County Jail had filed a class-action lawsuit against the county and Gov. Greg Gianforte, alleging dangerously unsanitary conditions, lack of access to health care and denial of religious practices.

The Montana State Penitentiary at Deer Lodge suspended visits in late October due to a chronic labor shortage. Montana State Hospital, which is tasked with treating patients in the criminal justice system, had federal reimbursements withdrawn earlier this year after mismanagement resulted in the deaths of four patients. Gianforte, Lee Newspapers reported, in a Nov. 10 preview of his budget proposed overhauling the state prison and hospital with the estimated $1 billion surplus.

The YCDF guards started last week with 583 inmates at the 434-bed facility. Undersheriff Sam Bofto, who was the prison’s commandant from 2013 to 2018, said up to 600 people were detained at the YCDF at one time. In his experience with the jail and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, Bofto can recall only one week when all of the jail’s staff positions were filled.

“But it hasn’t taken us to where we can’t protect the inmates or the guards. We’re not at the breaking point. We’re very resilient,” Bofto said.

Lieutenant Robert Lester at YCDF

Lt. Robert Lester of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office is photographed Thursday, November 17, at the Yellowstone County Detention Center.


Lt. Robert Lester took over as prison commandant last month. Along with making sure every guard carries life-saving naloxone, Lester’s top priority is staff shortages. Rather than “fill” anyone who might apply for the job, Lester said he’s interested in reducing turnover rates and keeping the new guards long-term.

“We’re hiring,” he said.

That the prison is swollen with inmates and a shortage of guards is nothing new, Sheriff Linder said. The vast majority of those detained at YCDF have been charged with felonies and are awaiting their cases to be processed by the Yellowstone County District Court. He told the Gazette Wednesday the same thing he had said at previous public safety meetings.

“When the court system gets clogged, it’s like a bottleneck,” he said. “If you’re going to commit a crime, I think you should be through the system in less than a year… Prisons aren’t designed for long-term incarceration. That’s not what a prison is for.”

According to the prison list released on November 17, 34 people have been detained at the YCDF since before November 2021. Five people have been in prison since 2020 and two since March 2019.

That same day, 20 people serving time sentences at the Montana Department of Corrections were still awaiting transport to the MSP, or Montana Women’s Prison. At least one inmate has been waiting for transport since August.

Lieutenant Robert Lester at YCDF

The front of the Yellowstone County Detention Center is seen Thursday.

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In September, two men escaped from YCDF, allegedly by smashing their cell window and climbing out. Surveillance footage showed the two running across the prison grounds and climbing a fence to flee the area. Billings police arrested her the next day along with three other men accused of helping them escape from law enforcement.

“I can not say that [overcrowding] didn’t belong. Would it have happened if we weren’t overcrowded? Might have. But I imposed that on us. We probably could have prevented it. That’s why we do more training, more assessments. I said it from the start, it was 100 percent up to us,” said Linder.

Outside of prison, attorneys and legislators draft legislation to stem the flow of people into prisons across the state and expedite criminal trials. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito joined the Criminal Justice Oversight Council ahead of the 2023 Montana state legislature. The Council is a group of public safety stakeholders who study implementation of Montana’s criminal justice reforms and request legislation through the Interim Law and Justice Committee.

Twito echoed Linder in an interview with the Gazette Thursday that building a bigger prison would only result in more inmates and ultimately cost taxpayers more money on staff and upkeep. Regarding overcrowding in state prisons, specifically YCDF, Twito said the council had drafted two bills. One is revising the state’s definition of a persistent offender on probation, the other is creating a pilot program to divert nonviolent offenders from the courtroom and, ideally, toward treatment.

Lieutenant Robert Lester at YCDF

A holding cell at the Yellowstone County Correctional Facility is photographed on Thursday, November 17.

“One of the things [the council] starting to understand here in Yellowstone County why our prison is so damn full,” Twito said. “Well, one of the reasons is the case resolution times, the time from arrest to the resolution of the person’s case has been increasing. And there are many reasons for that, but one of the reasons may be that some of the more difficult people, who have a lot of issues to solve, tend to serve longer in prison.”

The potential change to the state’s definition of a persistent felony under parole supervision, Twito said, would give prosecutors another tool to incentivize plea hearings.

The pilot program would allow people charged with crimes such as theft or drug possession to ask the court to seek treatment within 10 days of being charged, according to the last draft reviewed in August. If approved by the court, they would be able to complete a supervised treatment plan which, upon completion, would end with the de-registration of all criminal documents related to their crime.

“You have to identify these people [who qualify], and rate them, and you must do it quickly. You can’t charge them up and then wait nine months,” Twito said.

Lieutenant Robert Lester at YCDF

Lt. Robert Lester of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office is photographed Thursday, November 17, at the Yellowstone County Detention Center.

Where funding for the program would come from has not yet been determined, Twito said, and the council is still trying to figure out which jurisdictions the pilot program will take place in.

Ahead of the lawmakers’ meeting next year, Linder and prison administrators have instituted programs that address addiction and mental health care. These include access to telemedicine sessions with psychiatrists and a recently launched pilot program to treat opioid addiction with medication.

“Many people [in YCDF] probably don’t belong in jail,” Sheriff Linder said. “They belong somewhere where they can get mental health treatment.”