by CHRIS ROGERS
The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) is “ratcheting up the pressure” on Winona County to replace its substandard jail, according to county officials. The Winona County Jail’s 1978 facility has not met state codes for years, and the DOC cracked down on it in 2016 with major sanctions, including barring the jail from holding inmates for longer than 90 days. This summer, DOC issued new restrictions that ban the jail from holding juveniles even briefly. It is a comparatively minor sanction, but Winona Police officials said it may consume more of patrol officers’ time and some county staff believe it adds urgency to the county’s jail planning efforts.
The DOC’s concerns about the Winona County Jail are no secret. The jail lacks a real recreation and programming space. DOC leaders called that “essential for the safe operation of a facility,” adding that, “Idle time combined with an indirect supervision style often leads to problematic behaviors.” The jail’s medical room is too small. Its poor sight lines make it more difficult for staff to keep an eye on inmates, and 9-1-1 dispatchers are asked to pull double duty — answering emergency calls, remotely unlocking doors for jail guards, and minding jail security cameras. DOC inspectors have outlined the same concerns for many years, and many of the problems are issues that cannot be fixed without building a new, multi-million-dollar facility or paying neighboring county jails to house many or all of the county’s inmates.
What county officials do not know is exactly what the DOC will do next or how much time the state agency will give them to gather information, weigh options, and make a decision with major implications for county taxpayers and the local justice system. “That’s kind of the wild card,” Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said.
After the 2016 sanctions, county leaders began taking steps to plan for the future of its jail. With help from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), the county produced a Jail and Justice System Assessment in fall 2016 that focused on what role the jail plays in the larger justice system. In May 2017, NIC experts led county officials through a how-to-do-jail-planning training called Planning of New Institutions (PONI). NIC experts advised the county that planning a new jail is a big decision and should be done deliberately. In July 2017, the County Board appointed the current Jail Advisory Committee to produce a needs assessment that will make projections about what Winona County’s future jail population will look like and provide analysis of the pros and cons of different options for meeting that need. The group held its first meeting this January, when the county hired jail planning expert Tom Weber to help the committee. The group hopes to complete the needs assessment by January 2019. “It may seem slow, but we are making some progress, and I hope [DOC officials] would look at that and say that is an earnest effort to move forward,” Fritz stated.
After its latest inspections this summer, the DOC authorities issued a new sanction against the jail, banning it from holding juveniles for any amount of time. State codes require that juvenile inmates must not be able to see or hear adult inmates, and the Winona County Jail could not ensure that, according to the DOC.
In recent years, the jail has not held juvenile offenders for very long. Juveniles arrested in Winona County are primarily housed at facilities across Minnesota — some at actual juvenile detention centers and most at treatment centers and shelter homes. Before the new sanction, juveniles only stayed for brief periods at the Winona County Jail while waiting to be transported to a distant facility or while waiting for a court hearing later in the day. They were kept in a holding cell that is separate from most of the jail.
Now, Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said his office is still waiting to hear whether juveniles could be briefly kept at holding cells within the courthouse instead. If that is not allowed, juveniles awaiting transportation or a court hearing will likely need to br supervised by an arresting officer at a police station. The Winona County Sheriff’s Office has an interview room it might use. The Winona Police Department may have to do the same, according to Winona Deputy Police Chief Tom Williams. “Now an arresting officer from the city is going to have to sit with them, which takes an officer off the street,” Williams said. That is not the end of the world — officers already face a similar issue at the emergency room while waiting for a subject to be accepted by a detox or mental health facility — but it could keep a patrol officer tied up for an hour or so, Williams stated. “It’s a little impacting, but it’s northing earth-shattering,” Ganrude stated.
At the Jail Advisory Committee meeting last week, some county officials saw the DOC’s latest sanction as a sign. “I think no matter what we do, until something happens with the brick and mortar, these things will just keep getting tighter and tighter,” Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said.
“They’re ratcheting up a little bit each time,” Fritz stated. “This is kind of ratcheting up the pressure,” Weber agreed, adding that if the county ignores the DOC, the state could completely shut the jail down.
Committee members said that after repeated sanctions, the DOC actually did shut down the Wabasha County Jail before Wabasha County built its new, current facility. On the other hand, Winona County Board members have been eager to avoid what they saw as a rush to overbuild in Wabasha and Houston counties, where the counties built large, expensive jails in response to DOC pressure and now have numerous empty cells. A 2003 Winona County study pegged the cost of a new jail at $10-$12 million.
Asked if the latest DOC sanction adds urgency to the county’s jail planning efforts, Fritz responded, “I think it means we need to stick to our timetable, and we need to be ready to do whatever they deem necessary.” He added, “One thing that is clear to me is that the DOC is not going to give us forever to deal with this issue.”
The DOC’s latest sanction asks for a long-term plan by next February describing how the county will address its facility’s numerous deficiencies. Fritz said that if the needs assessment is completed by January, the County Board could make a decision on the next step — possibly hiring a jail planner or architect to produce conceptual designs and more detailed cost estimates for various options — by February. He acknowledged he is not sure if that will meet the DOC’s expectations.
DOC officials refused an interview request for this story. In emailed statements, DOC representative Aaron Swanum was unclear about exactly what the DOC would do next. Asked how much time the county has to plan a new facility to correct the current jail’s deficiencies, Swanum wrote, “There is no timeframe at this point.” Although DOC officials know about the county’s jail planning efforts to date, when asked if the county’s progress was satisfactory, Swanum wrote, “We are unaware of any significant planning that has taken place. Therefore, we are not able to determine ‘satisfactory progress.’” He later described the work the county has accomplished as “first steps.” Swanum added, “The inspector assigned to the facility will conduct annual inspections and more frequent visits to monitor progress and make recommendations and/or set timelines for ongoing progress.”
“We have been making progress,” Fritz stated. “Sometimes with things like this, you have to educate, not only the people involved, but you have to educate the board and the public … And you want to make a good decision,” he added.
For his part, Ganrude described the DOC’s inspections and its concerns as pretty consistent since he became sheriff in 2014. Even the DOC’s request for a long-term plan has been repeated in past inspection reports, he noted. Ganrude said the agency’s latest actions do not drastically increase the urgency of jail planning. “I would say, slowly but surely we need to do something,” he said. “I’m waiting for this study to be done and to have the [County Board] look at the whole picture and make a decision,” he added.
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