by CHRIS ROGERS
After months of study, the Winona County Jail Advisory Committee recommended last week that the County Board build a new jail at an estimated cost of $22 million. Debt payments for the project would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an extra $36 per year in taxes for the next 25 years.
The county has to do something with its jail. Its current 1978 jail has been out of compliance with state codes for years because of, among other things, its cramped recreation space and medical exam room and several security and safety flaws that could put inmates or jail staff at risk. The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) got tough on Winona County in 2016 when it revoked the county’s ability to hold inmates over 90 days. The County Board began exploring options to replace the current jail and appointed the Jail Advisory Committee. Then last fall, the DOC really laid down the law, announcing that it would shut down the jail in September 2021. The county now has two-and-a-half years to come up with something to replace the current jail — either building a new jail, developing a plan to export all inmates, or something in between.
This issue cannot be ignored, Jail Advisory Committee Chair Justin Green said. “If we put it off, by the time we get to September 30, 2021, we will have no jail, and then we’ll have no choice,” he stated. “The more you postpone it, the more likely we house people out-of-county and that is the most expensive option in the long run,” he said.
The Jail Advisory Committee studied four options: first, doing nothing; second, building a 72-hour holding facility; third, building a 90-day lockup; and fourth, building a new, full-fledged jail. The committee analyzed the estimated construction, transportation, staffing, and out-of-county housing costs for each option.
Although the first option is called “do nothing,” literally doing nothing is not an option, county officials said. To export all of its inmates to neighboring counties, the county would still need a secure garage bay for inmates to be loaded into transport vehicles and holding cells where inmates could be held for a few hours while awaiting Winona County District Court hearings. The county could renovate its existing jail to provide those needs, the Jail Advisory Committee reported, but it would need to be renovated. The current garage bay is not secure, and the current jail’s cells do not meet state code; new holding cells would need to.
The other options would all require building an addition onto the existing jail or building a whole new structure. Renovating the jail is not a feasible option, according to the committee; it is just too small.
A 72-hour holding facility would only be able hold inmates for 72 hours — enough to hold a violent offender arrested on Friday night until Monday morning, when a judge could release them or they could be shipped to the Houston County Jail while awaiting trial. A 90-day lockup could hold inmates for 90 days. Many inmates would still have to be housed at neighboring county jails. A full-fledged jail would enable the county to keep inmates for up to one year; beyond that, inmates are sentenced to state prisons.
Committee recommends new jail
Building a new jail is the most expensive option upfront, but it comes with the lowest annual costs, according to the committee’s report. While other options are cheaper upfront, they have high annual costs for staffing, transporting, and inmate housing fees, and those costs add up. Over 20 years’ time, building a new jail nearly would be as affordable or more affordable than other options, according to the committee’s report.
“To me, it’s the cost factor,” Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said when asked why he supported building a new jail. “It comes out almost a wash if you extrapolate it out over a period of time.”
“Essentially, it comes down to the difference between owning and renting,” Green stated. “If we transported all of our prisoners and we did that for 25 years, at the end of 25 years, we’d have a filing cabinet full of receipts … At the end of 25 years, that’s all we’ve got,” he explained. “If we spend essentially the same amount of money, we’ve got a paid-in-full building that we can essentially do with what we want.”
In addition to cost, other concerns supported the committee’s recommendation. The “do nothing” and 72-hour hold options would require huge numbers of trips between Winona and neighboring jails. Likely four or five trips would be needed every day to shuttle inmates to Winona for court dates and medical appointments, and more trips means more risk of accident, injury, or escape, the committee noted. “I don’t like the idea of sending our inmates out,” Ganrude said. “It’s always a risk to the county, the staff, and the public.”
There are risks to relying heavily on neighboring jails, as well, the committee wrote. Houston and Wabasha counties may not have enough room for all of Winona County’s inmates, and they may refuse to take “problem” inmates, the report explained. The committee wrote that, without any jail of its own, Winona County would be in a weak negotiating position when haggling over inmate housing prices. “Other counties [would] know that Winona County has no bargaining power in setting prices for the housing of Winona inmates,” the committee stated. There are more distant jails the county could utilize, but the added drive time would multiply staffing and transportation costs, the report added.
Housing inmates outside the county comes with “soft costs,” too, the committee stated. It separates inmates from family members, work-release programs, and other support networks and services that help reform offenders and help them transition to productive life after release, committee members explained. Concerns about these “soft costs” is not just Winona County being soft on inmates, Ganrude stated. Over the years, the county developed lots of programs that help reduce recidivism — the rate at which offenders reoffend — and that has significantly reduced the jail population, he said. “We were in the 80s for [average daily] population. Now we’re in the 50s,” Ganrude stated. “I’d hate to think where we’d be if we didn’t have all the programs.” Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman added, “Having a new facility that helps address people’s needs as they transition out of jail will benefit the community because, I think, we’ll have less recidivism … We can’t just lock someone up and think they’re going to get better.”
Finally, the committee argued that by building a new jail, more dollars would stay in Winona County — in the form of construction jobs and detention deputy positions — instead of sending money to neighboring counties to pay for inmate housing. “[T]his option keeps the taxpayers’ money in the community,” the report stated.
The report’s assumptions
The Jail Advisory Committee report’s staffing estimates are based on the assumption that the county would send one licensed peace officer and an unlicensed transport officer with each inmate transport vehicle in most cases. Currently, the county employs just one unlicensed transport officer per vehicle. Wages for licensed peace officers are more expensive than unlicensed staff, and — obviously — two staff members cost more than one. Jail planning consultant Tom Weber said there are safety concerns with sending just one unlicensed officer on transport runs. “To me, that’s the safe way to do it,” he said of having two officers.
One downside of owning property instead of renting is that, in this case, the owner pays utilities and if something breaks, it is the owner’s problem. In its calculations of the long-term costs of each option, the jail report estimated that operating a new jail would cost the county around $4.2 million over 20 years, or $208,000 per year.
The jail report also forecast that the jail population will increase in the future. In 2017, the jail’s average daily population was 49 inmates. The report forecast that by 2028, the jail population will increase to almost 70 inmates. On top of the average daily population, the jail report advised that a new jail would need excess capacity to handle peak demand and inmates with special needs. The report forecast the county will need almost 100 jail beds by 2028.
It is up to the County Board to decide how to lead the county forward. The Jail Advisory Committee will present its report to the County Board on February 26. County administrator Ken Fritz explained that no decision is expected at that meeting; he plans to hold longer meetings in March for the County Board to hash out the details of the report and what to do. If the County Board agrees with the committee’s recommendation, it might hire architects to design a new jail.
Although 2021 is still a long time off, the clock is ticking. According to county staff and jail planning consultants, the county would be hard-pressed to design, build, and open a new jail before the DOC shuts down the current facility.
Asked what the community needs from County Board members at this point, Ganrude said, “We need them to review [the report] thoroughly, listen to the presentation with open minds, and ask us whatever additional questions they have. But we need them to step up this time.” Ganrude referenced the County Board’s discussions of building a new jail in the 2000s — and even earlier discussions — and the board’s decisions to postpone a new jail. “We’ve gone down this road twice before that I’ve been involved with, and each time the County Board decided to stay put,” Ganrude stated. “This time it’s different because our jail is going to close. We need to take action.”
Cost estimates for jail options
Options one and two rely heavily on housing inmates in neighboring county jails and shuttling them to the Winona County District Courthouse. According to the Jail Advisory Committee’s report, options for building a new jail or 90-day lockup facility benefit from lower annual transportation, staffing, and inmate housing fees. Over time, the higher annual costs of options one and two wipe out the upfront savings, according to the report.
Upfront costs: $2.1 million
Total costs in 20 years: $100 million
Option 2: 72-hour holding facility
Upfront costs: $8.8 million
Total costs in 20 years: $110 million
Upfront costs: $19.7 million
Total costs in 20 years: $100 million
Option 4: New jail
Upfront costs: $21.9 million
Total costs in 20 years: $102 million