Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell squeezed past members of the Winona County Jail Advisory Committee while giving them a tour yesterday. “The hallways are very narrow. There’s not a lot of operating space back here,” he said.
by CHRIS ROGERS
One of the most important stages in planning for the future of the Winona County Jail is underway. The Winona County Jail Advisory Committee held its second meeting yesterday, when the group toured the county’s 1977 jail.
Wilson Town Board Chair Leon Bowman is one of a couple Jail Advisory Committee members appointed to represent rural taxpayers. As they toured the facility, he asked Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell several questions about security issues. There are cameras watching most parts of the jail, but they are not monitored constantly. Shouldn’t it be someone’s job to watch those constantly, Bowman asked. “That would be nice,” Buswell said. After hearing about this and other security flaws — detention deputies carry keys on their person; the garage bay has only one secured door, not two — Bowman asked, “So what you’re telling us, Steve, is this place started out behind the eight ball, and you’re just band-aid-ing every time you make a change?” Essentially, Buswell said.
According to county staff, the Winona County Jail was not up to state code virtually from the day it was built. In fact, Buswell said the facility was built in part to avoid compliance with forthcoming state rules during the 1970s. It is not handicap-accessible, it has a number of security flaws, and the medical exam and recreation rooms are too small, among other problems. The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) has forced other neighboring counties to do something about their noncompliant jails, and Wabasha and Houston counties both chose to build new jails at great expense. Both jails have excess capacity now. Last fall, the DOC cracked down on Winona County, too, downgrading the facility from a full-fledged jail to a “90-day lockup,” and forcing the county to export more inmates to Wabasha and Caledonia. If Winona County does nothing, county staff say it is only a matter of time before the DOC completely shuts down the Winona County Jail.
So, Winona County is in the middle of an effort to lay out a plan for the future of its jail. On the Winona County Board, commissioner Greg Olson tried to get the full board to agree that a new or renovated facility of some kind was needed, while rural commissioners Marcia Ward and Steve Jacob have encouraged county staff to pursue collaboration with Houston and Wabasha counties. Dodge County does not even have a jail; it exports all of its inmates, and maybe Winona County could do the same, Ward suggested. Sharing jails is something Southeast Minnesota counties have considered before, but during recent talks, local criminal justice leaders have pushed back at that idea and Olson and County Board members Marie Kovecsi and Jim Pomeroy have supported the idea of building a new jail facility that would also incorporate space for criminal justice reform programs aimed at reducing recidivism. Some county staff have also supported the idea of designing a new combination jail and mental health treatment center.
There are different ideas about what a new jail should look like and whether Winona County should build one at all. Over the coming months, the Winona County Jail Advisory Committee is tasked with identifying needs, analyzing options, and developing concepts for how the jail system could work in the future. Whatever happens will have a significant impact on Winona County’s criminal justice and social service system as a whole.
Yesterday, the 20-plus-member committee split up into two separate tours, but it was still close quarters when the members stopped in the booking room. Committee member Bill Spitzer poked his head in from the hallway rather than trying to squeeze into the nurse’s station; he had seen it before from his days as a deputy anyway. When they stopped in the combination canteen-library-recreation room, where a pull-up bar stands in one corner, a bookshelf with paperback copies of the Twilight series sits in another, and a trio of vending machines line the far wall, Buswell said, “It’s pretty self explanatory. There’s not much for recreation.”
Committee facilitator Tom Weber, a jail planning consultant from La Crosse, quizzed Buswell — does anyone test the temperature of hot food delivered from La Crosse? — and pointed out some things that modern jails do differently. Noting the U-shaped booking station, Weber explained that most modern jails make sure there are two ways to get out of any work station so an inmate cannot corner detention staff. Weber was more explicit in his judgment of other problems with the current facility.
For example, within each cell block, there are doors on each cell. Normally, they are opened and closed with an electric motor. If the motors fail during an evacuation, jail staff have to enter housing units and manually open each cell door so that inmates can be evacuated. Weber explained that most modern jails have a manual system that allows jail staff to quickly open all the cell doors in a cell block at once in case of an emergency. “When minutes count and you have to get into every cell of the facility, you’re not going to hit any egress standard if you have to get into every cell,” he stated.
Weber pointed to the jail’s narrow doorways, which would prevent jail staff from using a standard gurney to remove an injured inmate. “The inability to remove an inmate with a head injury through that doorway has some serious life, safety, and health issues,” he said.
The jail planning expert also asked about how Buswell’s staff screens newly arrested suspects brought to the jail by various law enforcement departments. Sometimes these people are so intoxicated or in such a state of mental health crisis that the jail will want to tell the arresting officer to take the suspect to the hospital instead. Buswell said that his staff tries to assess incoming inmates’ condition in an admittedly crowded garage bay, but it is not always able to properly screen new inmates until they are already inside the jail. Officers must bring arrestees inside the jail to use the county’s blood-alcohol content testing machine, for example. That opens up a potential problem, Weber said, because an arresting officer might say that once an inmate is inside the jail, the inmate is the jail’s problem, and the jail might not have enough staff to transport someone to the hospital themselves.
If multiple suspects are brought in all at once, the jail booking room is only big enough for one at a time, so the jail staff either processes the most cooperative arrestees in a less secure setting or puts them into a holding room until there is enough space to properly book them.
For all of those reasons and others, Weber said of the booking room, “This space, to me, has some real serious concerns.”
“Hearing you talk — I’ve been here so long just making it work. Sometimes you just get used to doing it until someone opens up your eyes to it,” Buswell responded.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on the Jail Advisory Committee’s progress.