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Improvements made at federal park lockups after report cites deficiencies

Yellowstone Gate, Dec. 19, 2014.

Inspection prompts changes at mismanaged Yellowstone jail

CODY, WYO. — The National Park Service has changed how it manages a short-term detention site in Yellowstone National Park after a review of operations there found serious deficiencies, and even recommended a temporary closure of the facility.

Following inspections of lockups at Yellowstone and Yosemite National Park conducted a year ago by the Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General, auditors determined that the Yellowstone lockup "did not provide effective security." 

An OIG management advisory issued Jan. 13 and based on health and safety concerns recommended closure of the Yellowstone jail until changes could be implemented.

The report noted that Yellowstone failed to comply with "departmental requirements regarding inmate monitoring, inspections, emergency planning and evacuation planning."

Many OIG concerns focused on how the facility, which is located in Mammoth Hot Springs in a separate building from the Yellowstone Justice Center, was usually unstaffed, and was typically monitored only by closed-circuit television.

But Yellowstone's jail was not closed, because park managers began to make changes recommended by the report, said Jeffrey G. Olson, public affairs chief for the Park Service. 

Olson was unable to provide a copy of the OIG advisory that recommended closure, or a Jan. 27 response by the Park Service.

Following a request made Dec. 16 by Yellowstone Gate, Olson cited "people on annual leave combined with upcoming holidays" as cause for delay in locating copies of the documents. 

The main OIG audit report, issued May 8 and publicly released last month, noted that the Park Service in its January response "concurred with the recommendation in the management advisory and had begun to take action."

According to a Park Service compliance report provided by Olson, those changes included: on-site monitoring of inmates, developing appropriate written plans and policies and working to establish third-party inspections of the jail. 

Long history of lockups

The inspections at Yellowstone and Yosemite were made as part of a review of how the National Park Service conducts operations at detention facilities at sites ranging from the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead. Inspectors chose to visit lockups at Yellowstone and Yosemite because "these two parks have a long history of operating lockup facilities" and "both parks feature federal courthouses presided over by resident magistrate judges," the report stated.

Like Yosemite, Yellowstone reports arrests of approximately 150 people each year, and most inmates are not held longer than 48 hours. 

Auditors "found that detention officers did not directly supervise inmates," and only personally observed inmates "when delivering meals or transporting inmates to the Yellowstone Justice Center," less than a half-mile away.

Interior Department guidelines require that rangers personally observe inmates at least once every half hour, a widely followed standard for detention facilities. But Yellowstone's lockup was not regularly staffed by anyone, according to the report.

Dispatch personnel stationed about a quarter-mile from the lockup remotely monitored detainees by closed-circuit television (CCTV). But "a dispatcher would only be aware of an emergency at the lockup if he or she saw it on the CCTV or if an inmate pressed a call button to speak with a dispatcher," the report said.

Dispatchers were trained to report emergencies to Mammoth Hot Springs district rangers responsible for the lockup, but auditors "were told that a dispatcher could be occupied by other work during the busy season, and might not monitor the lockup CCTV for several hours at a time."

Wide range of non-compliance

The report found Yellowstone was not compliant or was only partially compliant with 19 out of 20 key guidelines mandated by Interior Department standards. Among the management deficiencies cited were that Yellowstone's lockup:

• lacked a formal inspection program to review operations, equipment and facilities. 
• had not developed required written policy manuals, emergency plans or evacuation plans.
• had not conducted required emergency training and did not have a formal general staff training program.
• lacked enough female officers to routinely conduct pat-downs and searches of female inmates.
• lacked written policies about inmate behavior, methods of processing new inmates and handling medical issues.
Construction was completed in 2008 on the 14,700-square-foot Yellowstone Justice Center, which replaced a cramped judicial building half that size constructed in 1903, and first used as an engineer's office. Part of the initial reason for building the new $6.8 million YJC was to create a new detention facility.

"Ultimately, funding precluded that from happening," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said in an email.

Budget constraints meant delaying construction on a planned detention wing initially meant to be part of the new YJC, according to public comments made in 2007 by project manager Vickie Roseberry. The proposed detention wing was then considered as a future second phase of the project, but no plans have moved forward on that front.

Instead, a guard house built by the U.S. Army in 1911 is still being used as the park's lockup, as it has been for more than a century.

"The facility was refurbished in 2009 to modern jail standards," Nash said. "It contains 4 cells and can hold up to 18 prisoners."

Following the rules

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News and an advocate for prisoners' rights and criminal justice reform, said it was "somewhat ironic that the federal government wasn't following its own rules."

"It's usually the case that the federal government is very big on making sure regulations are followed by everyone," Friedmann said. "If you're going to run a lockup and deprive people of one of their fundamental rights, maybe you need to do it properly and according to your own rules," he said.

Failing to monitor prisoners presents a serious safety issue, particularly regarding medical issues, Friedmann said. 

Someone locked up, for instance, for driving under the influence could suffer a short time later from drug- or alcohol-related health problems that require immediate care. But the detainee might go unnoticed for hours, Friedmann said, especially if a remote video feed wasn't monitored or the medical problem wasn't obvious on video.

Friedmann also questioned why Yellowstone—once a remote outpost plagued by 19th century poachers and accessible only on horseback—still needs its own separate federal jail and courthouse.

"If you're only locking up 150 people per year, why can't the Park Service contract with nearby local agencies to handle their detainees?" he said. "It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you invest a lot of money in these facilities, then you need to justify the cost and fill it."

It was unclear what consequences, if any, responsible Park Service employees faced for the deficiencies in handling detainees.

Olson, the public affairs chief, said he had "no idea" whether any Yellowstone employee had faced disciplinary measures for failing to follow Interior Department procedures. He did not follow through on a request made Tuesday to find out.

Yellowstone Gate has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the January management advisory and response, as well as all other records related to the OIG inspection and Park Service response. 

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or