HELENA – The lower two floors of Helena’s Law Enforcement Center now sit mostly empty, but that quiet won’t last long.
Work is set to begin next week in a long-awaited project to convert the entire building into an expanded county detention center. Contractors have already begun moving equipment in, as they prepare to demolish the existing spaces.
“We’re absolutely excited,” said Lewis and Clark County Undersheriff Jason Grimmis. “It’s taken years to get to this point.”
Grimmis took MTN on a final walkthrough of the center Friday. The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Helena Police Department moved out of their offices in the building earlier this year, allowing renovation work to begin.
“At this point, we’re saying goodbye to what it used to look like,” he said. “Then starting next week, it’s going to completely start to change.”
Demolition on the lower two floors will take several weeks, and contractors will then move into renovation.
The project, expected to cost up to $8.3 million, is intended to address serious overcrowding at the detention center. The center was designed to hold 80 inmates, but Grimmis said they currently average between 95 and 115 per day.
Voters in Lewis and Clark County approved a bond to remodel the Law Enforcement Center into an expanded detention center in 2016. The project began moving forward after they approved an operating levy for the expanded jail in 2017.
Once the renovation is completed, all three floors of the building will be part of the detention center. The basement previously housed conference space and Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Services. It will now serve as the “intake” area, where people will be initially booked and held after being arrested. It will also include space for services like laundry and kitchens.
The main floor was previously where HPD and LCSO had their offices. After renovation, it will have visiting areas, space for programs and several housing pods – the largest of which will hold around 50 inmates.
The second floor, where inmates are currently held, will also undergo some construction. Once work is done on the lower floors, administrators will start moving inmates there, so crews can begin work on the second floor.
The renovated detention center will have 156 beds. Grimmis said leaders hope they will be able to not only house all the inmates they currently have, but also bring back some Lewis and Clark County inmates who are being kept in other counties’ jails because of the lack of space.
Grimmis said having the detention center separated from HPD and LCSO’s administrative offices will allow leaders to focus on the needs of a jail. The building will have more limited access and fencing around it, now that the public no longer needs to come there for other business with law enforcement.
“We’re not having people come to this building to report that their car’s been stolen or any other kind of criminal activity,” Grimmis said. “That will all happen down at the 406 Fuller Avenue building, or it’ll happen out in the field.”
The area around the Law Enforcement Center will be fenced off as soon as construction begins. There will be clearly marked paths for attorneys, family members and others visiting inmates.
“We want people that are coming here to be safe when they show up, as well as when they leave,” said Grimmis.
There may be some impacts to roads around the building, but it’s not clear yet when or how long that could occur.
Grimmis said detention officers are working with inmates, to ensure things continue to operate smoothly as construction begins in the building.
“It’s going to result in increased intensity and impatience up in the jail,” he said. “But everybody needs to bear with us, because when the last nail gets inserted or the last strike with the paintbrush, we are looking at having a much more efficient building.”
-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News