Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell spoke at a public information meeting on the jail late last month. Sheriff Ron Ganrude (right) was also part of the panel.
by CHRIS ROGERS
It is crunch time for Winona County’s jail planning efforts. Local leaders say that even if architects started drawing blueprints for a new jail today, the county would be hard-pressed to get it built before the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) shuts down the current jail in September 2021. However, deciding what and whether to build a new jail is a big, complicated decision with multi-million-dollar implications, and the county is still the early stages of the normal jail planning process recommended by experts, with months more of in-depth planning that would typically be yet to come. In an effort to beat the clock, some county leaders are pushing for the County Board to make a decision sooner rather than later.
The DOC regulates county jails and has given Winona County many warnings over the years about its jail not meeting state code. This fall, the DOC announced it will shutdown the Winona County Jail entirely in 2021. The county has until then to build a new facility or come up with a system to operate without a jail and house all of its prisoners in neighboring county jails.
“The sense of urgency here is probably a lot greater than anyone realizes,” the county’s jail planning consultant, Tom Weber, said in an interview. “You think you have three years. You really don’t. There’s got to be decisions today so that you can be as close to that closure date as possible.” Weber said constructing and opening a new jail could take two years. County officials are optimistic that if they were in the middle of construction when September 2021 rolls around, the DOC would be willing to pushback its shutdown date. Even so, if the Winona County Board decides to build a new jail, the county would have to act soon in order to even come close to hitting the DOC deadline. Otherwise, the county might end up in a lurch, in which its current jail is shut down before a new facility is opened. That situation is a definite possibility, jail advisory committee chair Justin Green stated.
The County Board appointed Green and the rest the jail advisory committee last fall and tasked them with developing a “needs assessment” to help guide the county’s jail planning process, but the group did not hold its first meeting until this January. That is in part because, with the county’s limited budget, it took the county a while to hire a consultant to help lead the study. The county contracted with Weber at a discount — $15,000-$20,000 — with the understanding that committee members, not Weber, would do the bulk of the data collection and report writing and Weber would simply facilitate their meetings and help guide them. “It’s a lot of time and a lot of work, and everybody on that committee already has at least one full-time job,” Green said, adding, “But I think the committee is doing quite well on it.”
The committee has two more months before its needs assessment is due. County administrator Ken Fritz has encouraged the committee to move things along, telling Weber in a recent email, “We need to start putting this thing to bed.” Fritz has also said that he hopes the committee’s report will prime the County Board to make a decision on whether to build and possibly lead to hiring an architect this spring.
Jail planning efforts do not always move directly from writing a needs assessment to drafting blueprints. When it tasked the committee with producing a needs assessment, the County Board was following advice from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), which gave county leaders a free training on how to go about jail planning back in 2016. One of the main pieces of advice NIC experts shared is that jail planning is complicated and building a jail is a big decision. In the NIC’s jail planning guidelines, a needs assessment is step two out of nine. The NIC recommends local governments complete two more planning phases before they start drawing up blueprints for a jail.
Normally, the next step for a county would be to go through “design development,” Weber told the Post. Design development is an in-depth planning phase in which an architect produces detailed conceptual designs for multiple construction options, and decision makers weigh the pros and cons of each before deciding to draft blueprints for one selected option. Weber explained, “It gives you a much higher level of comfort with what you are choosing for the facility and how you are planning to operate it are married together in a perfect union so that your upfront capital costs are the right capital costs and your long-term operating costs are minimized. That’s what will kill you.” Building a new jail could easily cost over $10 million, and the layout of a new jail would affect what staffing is required. Over time those staffing costs add up. If a given design requires one extra 24/7 staff position compared to other designs, that position could cost the county $450,000 per year, Weber reported. Over the life of the facility, that adds up to many millions of dollars. “Unless they go through the more intensive process of developing these concepts, they’re going to make a mistake because [their decision] will probably be based on how much money they want to spend up-front, not what’s the best long-term fix,” Weber stated.
An architect from the company BKV Group — which is leading the county’s efforts to consolidate office buildings — has volunteered his time to help the jail advisory committee come up with very rough cost estimates for four options: first, doing nothing and outsourcing all inmates; second, building a 72-hour hold facility and outsourcing nearly all inmates; third, building a 90-day lockup and outsourcing many inmates, and fourth, building a full-fledged jail that could house all inmates for up to a year. That is great, but it is not the same as concept development, Weber said.
However, the county can hardly afford to take the time to go through conceptual development, Weber continued. “That would add another six months onto this planning thing, and the DOC only gave them three years … I understand why the commissioners are trying to hurry this along. They don’t have the needed time,” he said. “Skipping that step, we’ve got to give the best information we can so that they don’t make a big blunder by saying, ‘We’re just going with the cheapest option’ — not the cheapest option long-term, but the cheapest option upfront,” he stated.
Past procrastination — by the County Board that built the current jail in 1978 in a rush to avoid forthcoming state jail codes, by county boards since then that did not address the jail’s deficiencies, and by the current County Board in not getting the ball rolling on the jail planning process more quickly — put Winona County in this position, Green stated. However, the county should take the time to do this right. “Do we want to go half-hearted and spend as little as possible to get out from under the DOC’s letter, or do we want to do it the right way so that no County Board has to deal with this in another 20 years?” he asked. “Let’s solve the problem,” he stated.
Like several other committee members, including Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman and Winona County District Court Judge Mary Leahy, Green said he would like to see the county consider juvenile delinquents in its cost-benefit calculations and consider building a local facility to house juvenile offenders as well as adults. For years, the county has paid to detain juvenile delinquents at distant facilities across Minnesota, and by many accounts, the availability of bed space for juvenile delinquents is extremely limited. Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude even recalled one instance in which he had to have deputies drive an 11-year-old child to Indiana, because there was no closer facility available, and then drive the child back for a court date.
It is unclear whether the jail advisory committee will try to include rough cost estimates for a juvenile facility in its final report. Weber has suggested the committee simply recommend that the county study that issue in the near future.
Fritz has directed the committee to come up with cost estimates and a cost-benefit analysis of a “do nothing” option, although many committee members were quick to point out that literally doing nothing is not really an option. If the county were to operate without any actual jail, it would still need to set up holding cells for prisoners to be held during the day while awaiting a court date and the sheriff’s office and local police departments would likely have to hire more officers to transport inmates and new arrestees to neighboring jails, committee members said.
Green and many other committee members are also stressing the “soft costs” that go along with housing inmates out-of-county, including its impact on the Winona County Jail’s rehabilitative programs and the fact that it might delay court cases and extend jail stays. “Unless we want to support them in a jail or prison the rest of their natural lives, somehow we have got to figure out how to provide them with programs and opportunities to change their lives,” Green said of offenders. These soft costs are real, but it’s hard to put a number on them, he added.
Doing nothing would throw a wrench in the county’s jail-population-reducing pre-trial evaluations, delay court cases, and it could be more expensive in the long run, Judge Leahy said. However, she added, “Until you come up with those numbers, there are people on the County Board who will never buy that.”
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.