by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County just inked a more than $262,800 deal with Houston County to house Winona County prisoners. With a state-mandated downgrading of Winona County's jail coming at the end of August, Winona County will need to send more prisoners elsewhere this fall. A brief conversation about the deal with Houston County before a unanimous vote last week was the first time Winona County Board members publicly discussed the jail quandary facing them in an election year.
For years, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) officials have warned Winona County that the physical layout out of its jail is not up to modern standards for handicapped accessibility, recreational and programming space, medical space, booking space, security, and more, and they have prodded the county to fix those issues. The county has done everything it can to comply given its space limitations, but the jail still does not meet the state's latest rules. In December, the DOC finally dropped the hammer, telling Winona County staff that because of the unresolved problems, the DOC would limit the county to holding inmates for no more than 90 days and require that the jail follow rules for segregating prisoners by security risk, both of which will require the county to house more prisoners elsewhere than it currently does.
There could be more sanctions from the DOC in the future until the Winona County jail gets into compliance with the latest state rules, Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude and County Administrator Ken Fritz have said, so the County Board should consider its long-term options for resolving the problem: continue to outsource prisoners for the long-term, remodel the jail, or build a new one.
New jails are expensive. Building a new jail would likely cost the county millions of dollars, possibly over $10 million, which would make a new jail the most expensive building project for the county in many years. The chances that the existing jail can be renovated to meet modern standards is slim, according to county officials. For now, the county will simply pay to send more prisoners to neighboring jails. That is not cheap either. Last year, the county spent around $326,000 on outsourcing inmates, according to Ganrude. Now that the jail downgrade will force Winona County to export more inmates, the county might expect to pay another $105,000 to $158,000 per year, plus the cost of mileage and staff time to shuttle prisoners back and forth for court dates.
The Winona County Board still has not talked about what to do with the jail and its prisoners. Fritz placed the contract with Houston County on the Winona County Board's consent agenda. The consent agenda is typically reserved for a slew of rubber stamp votes that are approved en masse without discussion. The Winona County Board talked a little about the contract before voting to approve it, because commissioner Marcia Ward asked questions about it, but commissioners still have not talked about what to do for the long-term.
According to County Board member Steve Jacob and Fritz, the full board has known about the jail's impending downgrade since the DOC notified county staff in December. Jacob and Ward even sat in on a meeting with DOC executives in December. In recent interviews, county commissioner Marie Kovecsi expressed concern that there has not been more public discussion of the jail problem and the choices facing the county.
"It's now out and the county needs to start deliberating," Kovecsi said. The County Board should form a committee to study the issue and draft a plan for what to do, she said. If the county builds a new jail, it could design the new facility to also house offices for county social services staff that regularly work with the jail population, Kovecsi said. Kovecsi also expressed concern about whether inmates being outsourced to other jails will receive the same level of rehabilitation programming that the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) has used to help drive down incarceration rates.
The county does need to come up with a long-term plan, but the county might save money by taking its time doing that and continuing to use the existing jail for as long as possible, Jacob said in an interview earlier this month. "If we're being downgraded that doesn't mean we can't continue to function," he said. "If we need to send some of our prison population to potentially Wabasha or Houston, that's not a permanent solution but it's a solution. I'm not going to be putting a foot on the gas to try to come up with an immediate solution because … if there is a two-, three-, [or] four-year window that we have this option of taking prisoners somewhere else, that's not a bad solution."
Fritz sets the agenda for County Board meetings, though commissioners do have the power, with support from a second commissioner at a meeting, to bring up topics for discussion themselves. In a recent interview, Fritz said he planned to schedule a general discussion sometime in the next two months.
Why Houston County?
Whenever the County Board begins openly discussing what to do, in the meantime, Winona County needs to ensure that it has somewhere to send the prisoners it will no longer be able to hold.
That number is not astronomical. On any given day, the county currently houses an average of 18 prisoners at other counties' jails, Ganrude and Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said. After the DOC's restrictions come into effect this fall, they estimate it will be another six to nine prisoners each day, on average, staying elsewhere.
Under the new contract with Houston County, Winona County will pay $262,800 per year to reserve a guaranteed 15 beds at the Houston County jail. The county will need more than 15 beds. According to Ganrude and Buswell's estimates, there will be another nine to 12 inmates the county will house elsewhere. Wabasha, Goodhue, Olmsted, and Houston counties would all be options. However, the deal with Houston County guarantees that, at least for the first 15 prisoners, Winona County will not be stuck with prisoners it cannot hold and nowhere to send them, too. Houston County also offered Winona County a bulk rate: $48 per bed per day instead of $50. The deal with Houston County gives Winona County "an insurance policy," Buswell explained to the County Board last week.
The deal also means that the majority of the prisoners Winona County exports — and the taxpayer-funded payments that goes with them — will go to Houston County, not to other neighboring counties. Houston County is one of multiple neighboring counties that has jail space to spare and is in need of jail revenue; after building expensive new jails that were bigger than they needed, Wabasha and Goodhue counties are in a similar position.
Why didn't Winona County try to make neighboring counties compete with each other to give Winona County the best offer? Ward raised the question at last week's meeting. "I want to work a deal here," she told county staff.
At the meeting, Ganrude responded by telling Ward that while he had met with Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh, and while he, too, was excited to take Winona County prisoners, Houston County's jail met Winona County's needs better. Ward was placated.
In a subsequent interview, Ganrude explained that his office recommended Houston County because of his department's good working relationship with Houston County and the quality of mental health care and other services at the jail in Caledonia, which support Winona County's work to rehabilitate criminals. Ganrude added that while some other counties have refused to continue housing "problematic people" — inmates that cause trouble for jail guards and take up a lot of resources — Houston County has never demanded that Winona County take an inmate back. Ganrude and Buswell said that in that and other ways the two departments have helped each other out over the years.
Under the contract, Houston County will not have an option to refuse to house problem inmates.
Ganrude and Buswell also stressed that the level of care at the Houston County jail fit in well with the philosophies of the Winona County jail and the CJCC. They noted that Houston County has psychologists in the jail three days a week, and a chemical dependency and mental illness dual diagnosis program similar to one at Winona County's jail.