Winona County needs a new jail


From: Justin Green
Jail Advisory Committee chair
Jail Construction Planning Committee

Last month, the Winona County Board of Commissioners voted to proceed with the construction of a new jail. It created a Jail Construction Planning Committee (JCPC) and gave it instructions to develop plans for hiring an architect and a construction manager. If the board continues along this path, it will eventually adopt a design for a new jail and issue bonds for its construction. Every taxpayer in the county will pay a share of the cost. So, why is this expenditure necessary? Why build a new one?

For many years, the Winona County Jail has failed inspections by the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) due to changing rules, design inadequacies, and deficiencies in the existing facility. Finally, on September 7, 2018, the DOC ordered that the Winona County jail be closed as of September 30, 2021. From that day forward, no one can be incarcerated in the Winona County Jail.

Realizing that a decision had to be made, the County Board, in December 2017, created the Jail Advisory Committee (JAC) composed of 24 members. Leaders of agencies whose work involved the jail were named as members, as were several local elected officials and a number of private citizens. For the next year plus, the committee met monthly to consider options for the County Board.

In March 2019, the JAC reported to the board and recommended that it take steps to construct a jail that would provide 100 classified beds plus 30 specialty beds. The full report can be found on the county web site:

Over the next several months, commissioners met with the leadership of the JAC, as well as representatives of the sheriff’s office and the county attorney. The discussion eventually focused on the choice between a jail with 78 classified beds or 98 classified beds. Instructions to the Planning Committee ask that bids be requested for providing preliminary designs for both a 78-bed and a 98-bed facility.

The new jail is planned to be built on what is now the parking lot in front of the Law Enforcement Center and will include the renovation of the current jail into office space and other jail-related uses. The existing tunnel from the jail to the courthouse will be preserved and used when the new jail opens. The total cost won’t be known until construction bids are received, probably in a year. Current estimates are that the 98-bed facility will cost about $22 million. The smaller 78-bed jail will cost about $1 million less to construct. The county expects to issue a bond payable over 20 or 25 years to cover the cost.

So, why does Winona County need a new jail? For a number of years, the jail has failed inspections. The current jail was opened in 1978. The DOC had already announced new standards for jails. The County Board made sure that construction began before the effective date of the new standards. As a result, the current jail was opened in 1978 but was built to conform to standards that were approved in 1913. The JAC report on the county website includes the most recent report by the DOC inspector on the current jail and details many of the deficiencies.

When it created the JAC, the County Board asked that the committee address four options: transport all inmates to neighboring counties; build a small facility in Winona to hold inmates until they could be transported, or for when they would be brought back to Winona for a court appearance or other business; build a jail that could hold an inmate for no more than 90 days (any additional time would be spent in the jail of a neighboring county); build a jail to meet the current and future needs of the county.

The JAC considered all of these options, and especially focused on the cost of each. Over a 20- or 25-year period, the costs all turn out to be approximately the same total, but the money is spent in different ways.

One obvious alternative is to transport more Winona County inmates to neighboring jails in Houston and Wabasha counties. Currently, about 20 inmates are housed elsewhere every day at a cost of $55 per day; in addition, Winona County is responsible for transportation of inmates from county jails to court, to medical appointments and to other activities according to law. Houston and Wabasha counties do not have sufficient space to house all of the approximate 58 inmates that Winona County incarcerates every day. Even if space could be found, the committee determined that, in 20-25 years, it would spend about the same amount in room, board, and transportation as it would to build a new jail. The difference, of course, is the difference between renting and owning. About the same amount of money spent to send inmates to other counties could be spent to build a jail that should last for 40 or 50 years.

There are factors other than cost to be considered in deciding whether to transport or to build. When inmates are moved to another county, they must be brought back to Winona for court hearings and other business. The out-of-county jail would provide room and board only. Any other services, such as medical care, are the financial responsibility of Winona County and may call for even more transportation. Inmates are secure when they are incarcerated. When they are transported, there is always the potential for accidents that may create liability for the county or escapes or other untoward events.

Then, there are other complications. If there is no jail in Winona County, who will transport inmates when they are arrested — the county or local jurisdictions? About 14 percent would be booked into the out-of-county jail and released. Will the county or the local jurisdiction be responsible for bringing them back to Winona? Visits by family become more difficult depending upon where the inmate is transported. There is no assurance that Houston and Wabasha counties will be able to house all of Winona County’s inmates, so trips by sheriff’s staff to transport them and trips by the family to visit in other counties may become more difficult and expensive. Inmates will lose a lot of connections in Winona during incarceration elsewhere, but they will be returned to Winona County for release. Given all of the facts that the JAC submitted, it seemed clear to the board that building is the best answer.

The question then became how big to build? Winona County taxpayers should not be asked to pay for building a jail that is too big for the county. When the jail is completed, the DOC will set an operational capacity at 10-15 percent of the actual number of classified beds in the facility. These limits assure that, when an arrest is made, a bed is available in the proper classification to house the inmate. A jail designed for 78 beds will have an operational capacity of 66-70. A jail with a design capacity of 98 beds will have an operational capacity of 83-88.

The JAC, with the assistance of the consultant hired by the County Board, Tom Weber, studied the usage of the present jail and projected future populations. The average daily population of the jail, that is, the number of inmates in the jail or housed in and out of county jail, has gradually increased. In 2017, the average was 49. By early 2019, the average was in the mid-50s. The jail must be large enough to house all of the county’s inmates; otherwise, taxpayers will be paying for both the jail and for transportation. The committee accepted the projection by the consultant that the average daily population will reach 70 in 2027, or about four years after the jail is expected to open. In a 78-bed facility, the DOC will set an operational capacity at about 68-70. Thus, in 2027, a 78-bed facility will be full on an average day. In a 98-bed facility, operational capacity will be set at 87-89.

The jail also experiences peak populations, sometimes by month, almost always by day of the week. On an average weekend, 14 people are arrested and held in jail to appear in court on Monday. If the jail is too small, then either the newly arrested inmates must be taken out of the county, or inmates must be transported to make space for the newly arrested.

Figuring how big the jail should be is an important question. Taxpayers should not be required to pay for space that isn’t needed. But, if taxpayers pay for the bond and operating costs of the jail but transportation still is required because the jail is too small, the cost to taxpayers will be even greater. Over the next months, the Jail Construction Planning Committee will continue to consider the capacity question, as well as provide the documents the board has requested.

Providing security for the community is one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. The Winona County Board made the courageous decision to build a new jail to replace one that had been inadequate for several decades. The board chose to make the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer funds. As the board continues to develop plans for the new jail, it will address many questions of safety and security. The board understands well that the jail provides security for the community, as well as a place for inmates to change their lives and become positive, productive residents of our community.


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