By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer
Curry County could cut its jail overcrowding problem by housing nonviolent offenders in military surplus tents with air conditioning and portable toilets, according to County Commissioner Tim Ashley.
That’s assuming the state fire marshal approves.
Ashley told commissioners about his experience visiting the jail in Farmington, where he said county officials have built a “tent city” for minimum security inmates using heavy-duty military surplus tents that were originally used by the military as field hangars for helicopters. The total cost of that project was $30,000, Ashley said, and he succeeded in convincing the county commission members to approve a trip to Farmington to tour the San Juan County jail facility.
Commissioner Pete Hulder pressed jail administrator Don Burdine on how many of the county’s 300 or more inmates could be considered low-risk and therefore eligible for the tent housing.
“I’d hate to ever guess, but I would certainly say the largest portion of the boom we have had in our system has been in minimum and medium security inmates,” Burdine said. “But I’ve been told that the state fire marshal simply will not authorize the use of a tent.”
Ashley said Burdine is correct that the state fire marshal initially opposed the tent city jail concept, but said the San Juan County sheriff, a Marine veteran, successfully argued there was no legitimate reason jail inmates couldn’t be housed in military surplus tents.
“He told me the fire marshal backed down,” Ashley said. “He said, ‘There are GI’s all over the world housed in tents like this, it meets all the standards, so what’s the problem?’”
Commission Chairwoman Kathrynn Tate said she thinks a trip is premature.
“It looks to me like we’ve got a lot of studying to do before we go running off on a trip,” she said.
Ashley countered: “I think going there is a big part of the study process; seeing those structures out there was very enlightening to me. Where I’m coming from is San Juan County had a problem much like ours (with overcrowding). They found a solution to the problem. I don’t know if this solution will solve our problem, but I think we need to look into this.”
Burdine cautioned that if the county wants to move in the direction of a tent jail facility, it needs to consider the potential consequences including a possible need for additional staff and a greater possibility of escape.
“If you’re going to do this, the benefit is you can house a lot more of them in a big open facility like this with less supervision, but that is the difference, this is less secure,” Burdine said. “If people want to escape badly enough, they may be able to do it.”
Burdine said tent jails usually don’t suffer from vandalism because the military-grade tent canvas is rugged and there’s no incentive to cut it open. If an inmate does manage to cut the tent, the effect is to let hot air into the air-conditioned tent, and if an inmate rips a hole big enough to flee, he still has to get over a security fence outside the tent before escaping.