Winona County Sheriff’s Office Transport Officer Bob Loken prepared to transfer a Winona County Jail inmate to the Houston County Jail last spring.
County leaders are still many months away from deciding whether to build a new jail facility or rely on exporting more inmates.
by CHRIS ROGERS
As Winona County slowly develops a plan for the future of its jail and criminal justice system, two things are becoming increasingly clear: county leaders will have to do something, and they are still a long way away from making a decision on exactly what to do.
“Unfortunately, a Band-Aid isn’t going to fix much,” commissioner Marcia Ward acknowledged in an interview this week. Because of the way the current jail is built, an inexpensive remodeling project will likely not be possible, she said. “Something more major will probably need to be done in the next coupe of years,” Ward stated.
That acknowledgement was significant because, in the past, Ward has been highly skeptical of the need for a jail. When fellow commissioner Greg Olson tried to get the full County Board to agree in 2016 that some new construction — some “bricks and mortar” — would be necessary to bring the county jail up to code, Ward joked that maybe a hoop house was warranted, not bricks and mortar. As the County Board was planning the creation of its Jail Advisory Committee last summer, Ward asked rhetorically, “How do you build a neutral, non-biased let’s-build-a-jail committee?”
All the talk of a new jail started in 2016, when the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) cracked down on the Winona County Jail for being out of compliance with state jail codes for years. The DOC demoted the facility from a full-fledged jail to a “90-day lockup” and forced Winona County to export inmates held for more than 90 days to neighboring county jails. If the county does nothing, it could face more sanctions from the DOC, possibly including the shutting down of the jail entirely, county staff warned. Since then, the county has been slowly trying to figure out what to do. Consultants from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) completed a 91-page Jail and Justice System Assessment in 2016 and provided a multi-day training to local officials in 2017. Over the last few months, the Jail Advisory Committee — a committee of local officials and citizens — have toured the local jail and neighboring jails and begun work on a Needs Assessment. That report will call out the current jail’s deficiencies and describe what Winona County needs in the future.
Ward and commissioner Steve Jacob have pushed for the county to seriously consider exporting inmates as a possible long-term solution to the county’s jail needs. They pointed to the experiences of Wabasha and Houston counties as cautionary tales: the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) told them their jails were substandard and the counties overbuilt new facilities at great taxpayer expense that are now full of empty beds. Instead of duplicating neighboring counties’ mistakes, Winona County could use the facilities those neighbors have already built, Jacob and Ward have argued.
Ward sees exporting inmates as a potentially cost-effective solution, and, at least in their statements so far, county staff and jail planning consultant Tom Weber have honored her and Jacob’s wishes that it be seriously considered. “I think that’s a scenario we’re looking at: could we renovate the existing facility and rely on outside partners to a large degree?” Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said. “Is that cost effective and safe? I don’t know.” Weber and local criminal justice system professionals are often quick to point out potential drawbacks of this idea, such as defense attorneys’ reduced ability to visit clients in jail and the risks posed by transporting prisoners. “One of the concerns that I have is, at your current jail, the population that leaves this jail and is held out-of-county, are your maximum security inmates,” Weber told the County Board late last month. “Every time you have to move one of those inmates, that opens up a lot of risk,” he added.
So far, the Jail Advisory Committee has agreed with past assessments of the jail: it is cramped. Committee member and Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander pointed to the fact that jailers eat lunch breaks in the same room in which they work. “If I had to work in the same place where I break, I don’t know if my attitude would be nearly as good as theirs,” she said.
Weber pointed to more serious safety issues with the current jail: cell doors that have to be opened one-by-one if electronic controls fail in a fire, jailers carry keys on their person where they could be taken, and door-control operators that are distracted by other tasks. In the current jail, three county dispatchers are responsible for answering citizens’ 9-1-1 calls, dispatching first responders, electronically unlocking doors for jail deputies, monitoring jail cameras, and keeping an eye on inmates in solitary confinement. “You’ve got dispatch expected to watch 60 cameras while they’re doing everything else,” Weber stated. “What if dispatch is busy?” he asked.
“The jail here is a huge risk to operate. And it’s because of the design,” Weber stated at a committee meeting in March. When Weber updated the County Board on the Jail Advisory Committee’s progress in late April, he told the board, “Jails are all about managing risk. It’s life, safety and health. If you jeopardize life, safety, and health, you’d better have a big checkbook because you’re going to generate some lawsuits.”
Asked about Weber’s description of the jail’s safety issues, Ward said, “With any aging facility, you’re going to have issues. Yes, they need to be addressed to keep the officers working there safe and the people staying there, but I didn’t hear anything glaringly new.” Ward said that these have been longstanding issues that jail staff have managed and that jail staff and Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude should take the lead on making recommendations for changes.
It will likely be many months before any recommendations or decisions are made. The Jail Advisory Committee is hoping to complete its Needs Assessment by November. That study will include jail population statistics and outline some of the problems with the current facility. It will not include recommendations on what to do. After the Needs Assessment, the County Board will need to decide how to move forward, Fritz explained. The county might need to study the feasibility of different options before making a decision on the future of the jail, he added. In other words, it may be a while before the County Board makes any big decisions about whether and what to build. That approach fits in with the methodical process NIC consultants recommended during their 2017 visit, Fritz said. Jail’s are a big investment; they should be carefully planned, the experts advised.