by CHRIS ROGERS
It is one of the most serious steps a state agency can take. Last month, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) told Winona County officials that if the county does not replace its substandard jail by 2021, the DOC will shut the jail down. In the only interview DOC leaders have granted to local media in recent years, Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Ron Solheid explained why. Meanwhile, County Board members laid out their different views about whether the shutdown deadline affects the urgency of the county’s jail planning efforts.
“This is not something that we arrived at overnight,” Solheid said. “This is something that’s been going on for many years.” For years, DOC inspectors have cited Winona County officials for the safety and security problems and limited space inside its 1978 jail. The DOC took its first step to get tough on enforcing state jail codes in 2016, when it downgraded the Winona County Jail from a full-fledged jail to a 90-day lockup, a move which forced the county to export more inmates. County staff have warned that more sanctions and, possibly, an eventual shutdown were possible if the county did nothing, though county staff said the DOC was not clear when more sanctions might occur.
County Board member Steve Jacob said the shutdown announcement came as a surprise. “The DOC would never give me clear answers [on], ‘If you don’t do this, here’s what’s going to happen,’” he stated.
County Board member Jim Pomeroy said of the shutdown announcement, “I wasn’t surprised. We knew that it was coming for quite some time.”
The DOC has a duty to look out for the constitutional rights of inmates and the safety of jail staff and inmates, Solheid stated. “Part of the issue here is that we have a facility here that has gone beyond its functional lifespan,” he said. “Not just from a physical standpoint … but we have also had jail standards that have been promulgated around operations, and those have actually been revised three or four times since they were initiated in 1979. So [the rules] have evolved over time in terms of what the expectations are for a one-year jail facility.” In other words, the state rules for jails have changed over the last 40 years, and, for years, Winona County’s jail has not met the new rules. The county does not have to build a new jail, but it cannot keep using the current one, Solheid and DOC Inspections and Enforcement Unit Director Tim Thompson stated. “We have a responsibility that is mandated under statute that [jails] meet the rule requirements for operations and physical plant, and we have a facility here that no longer meets those physical requirements. So we do have a responsibility to take action given the age of the facility,” Solheid added.
In his letter to county officials, Solheid said that the county’s lack of progress was part of the reason for imposing the shutdown deadline. Since 2016, the county has engaged in several jail planning processes, including completing a Jail and Justice System Assessment, a multi-day training from the National Institute for Corrections, and the jail advisory committee’s needs assessment, which is currently being written and is expected to be completed in January. Isn’t that progress? “I think it’s fair to say that the county, the elected officials are doing what they need to do,” Solheid responded. “This is just a matter of setting a date so people can make a decision. If we left it out there without any kind of date or deadline, we’ve seen it drag on for a number of years and that just adds to the liability for the county and the state.” He added, “We are just essentially setting this timeframe, setting this deadline so that decision gets made, so we aren’t sitting here five to 10 years from now saying, ‘Well you really need to move forward with this.’”
Though county administrator Ken Fritz said the county would be hard-pressed to complete a new jail by 2021 even if it started building tomorrow, Solheid and Thompson maintained that the shutdown deadline gives the county ample time to plan and build a new facility. Fritz said that the deadline adds new urgency to the county’s jail planning process and that, after the jail advisory committee makes its report in January, one of the next steps for the county could be to hire an architect.
How are County Board members receiving the news? “I can’t speak for other members of the board,” said Pomeroy, who is retiring from the board this December. “It does add some urgency to the issue, but we’ll have to see how that plays out.” When the jail advisory committee delivers its report, he added, “That’s going to be decision time.”
“I’m still not going to be feeling like we’re under the gun, and I’m not going to be making a hasty decision about what we need to do with our facility,” Jacob said. “Quite frankly, I would have been content to operate for an extended period of time as a 90-day lockup, but now that I know that’s not going to be [an option] for perpetuity, we might have to go a different direction,” he continued. Jacob noted that he was criticized for moving too slowly on jail planning; however, he countered, “The fact is, we did function for a couple more years under that program, which got a couple more years out of the facilities that the taxpayers have already purchased and paid for, and I think we have learned a lot about what we need.”
Jacob also observed that Dodge County operates without any jail and exports all of its inmates to neighboring counties. That is probably not ultimately what is best for Winona County, but, Jacob said, “If we have to spend three months, six months, eight months, a year without a jail, we’ve seen how that works and we might be in a better position to build the best facility.” He added, “However long it takes is how long it takes and if we have to get by a few months, a year without a jail because the DOC didn’t give us enough time, that’s what we’ll have to do … I’m not going to make a poor decision for the taxpayer because I was pressured into a timeline that was too compressed.”
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