Sent away: County’s juvenile detention debate




Since it was mandated by the state of Minnesota to close its old jail due to poor inmate conditions, Winona County is in the process of building a new one next door and vacating the old space. Although the lack of juvenile detention facilities has troubled the county for years, the empty adult jail finally presents a new opportunity to house juvenile offenders here in Winona as opposed to in far-flung detention centers and prisons elsewhere in the state. The county has mulled over the concept since at least the summer of 2019. The debate has only intensified since then: a conflict over how and when to lock up teens and children in Winona County.  

Whether this possible new facility will change Winona’s connection to the statewide juvenile detention system for better or for worse is the dividing line between county law enforcement and activists like those in the citizen group Community Not Cages. But both factions agree the current way the county deals with juvenile offenders is unsustainable. 

As there is no facility to house them locally, when a child is arrested in Winona County they are exported to different counties. Sometimes their destination facility is four or five hours away and sometimes not even in Minnesota at all. If the child is sentenced to detention post-conviction, the distance becomes more permanent, and their family must make a continual long trek to see their son or daughter. 

The system is not unlike throwing away garbage, Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said. “You throw it away, and do you ever really pay attention to what happens to your garbage after that?” Buswell said. Because there is no local facility, children are put out of sight and out of mind, so that Buswell and the county and their parents have little to no idea what is happening to them. 

There is also a clog in the system that may prevent juveniles from being shipped out immediately. They can sometimes be stuck in limbo back in Winona for hours while authorities harriedly try to find a facility that can take them. Juveniles 14 and above may be housed in the regular county jail for that time period, Buswell said, but children under the age of 14 categorically may not be in the jail for any length of time under state law, so law enforcement is forced to take drastic measures. Those children are put in the lobby, an office, or in the lunchroom until bed space is found, Buswell said. 

“It’s really not appropriate to just have them sit in a lobby,” he said. “Say you’re the kid … you’re just literally sitting in a chair. There’s no programming for you. I’m not really doing anything with you at that time, because we’re not afforded any space to do that.” 

When children are finally placed in a detention facility, they are severed from the Winona community and introduced to a new community, Buswell said: the community of criminals. Far away from the values and control of Winona, they are free to instead be influenced by their fellow inmates. 

One mother and former Winona resident saw her son corrupted by that exact same influence, and arguably, the influence of the system itself. To honor their concerns regarding privacy and possible retaliation for criticizing the justice system, this story will use fictional names for

 the mother and son: Amy and James. They both moved out of Winona, Amy said, because James’ life changed for the worse while he was put away in the juvenile justice system. Her son is a person of color.

“I know plenty of other families with children of color who have done the same thing — who have had to leave Winona because of both the police presence … and just the way things are handled with juveniles on probation there, once you’ve been marked as a negative influence on the community,” she said.

Her son was marked that way, she said. From the time James was first brought up on a truancy charge, he noticed he was being treated differently. His real troubles began when a scuffle with another kid near the family’s home resulted in criminal charges: fifth degree assault. James was 14 years old. 

“My belief is that the police charged him with that instead of disorderly conduct because he was already kind of on their radar,” Amy said. 

James was placed on probation and then repeatedly charged with violating that probation, Amy said. 

She rattled off the list of juvenile detention facilities where James had been an inmate. He was traumatized, Amy said, and he eventually wound up at an inpatient mental health facility. He was allegedly assaulted by a staff member there, so Amy advocated for him to be taken out. 

Prosecutors in Winona County did take him out — and transferred him to a juvenile correctional facility four hours away from Winona, for inmates ages 10 to 21. 

The vast geographic distance between Amy and James, coupled with her job and child care obligations, meant it was practically impossible for her to visit him. James was alone.

Alone in a very literal sense — he was placed in solitary confinement three times during the seven months he was there, Amy said. She didn’t even know about it until he told her. “Before that, I thought it was illegal, to use solitary confinement with children in Minnesota, but apparently it’s not,” she said. 

In fact, until 2019 Minnesota had no laws at all that specifically restricted the use of solitary confinement. 

Eventually, Amy managed to convince James’ probation officer to have him released to her custody. But even though James was outside the prison system, the trauma was not gone from his young mind. He had repeated moments of mental health crises at home, Amy said — forcing her to call the police on her own son. 

“He had started self-harming,” she said. “He had scars all over his arms because he was scratching and picking at himself.”

James is emotionally distant now, and prefers to hang out with the kids who can relate to his experience — kids who have also been locked up, she said. 

Amy’s experience, and that of other families she has met along the way, makes her skeptical of the idea of a juvenile detention in Winona. 

“In Winona, it seems very, very punitive,” she said. “I have a lot of doubts that if a juvenile detention center is built there, that suddenly that philosophy is going to change, and it’s going to be this great rehabilitative justice center that they’re putting forward.” 

Both Buswell and Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman cautioned that there are no definite plans to put a juvenile detention space in Winona County— using the old jail is simply an idea. In a written statement, Sonneman went on to say that Minnesota law restricts courts to only using lockup for juveniles convicted of certain crimes. 

“The law requires the least restrictive alternative when the court considers any placement options for a juvenile, and secure detention can only be used in those cases where a juvenile has been charged with very serious crimes such as murder, criminal sexual conduct, and assault, among others,” Sonneman said. 

However, this arguably conflicts with recent data that indicates violent crime is just a small portion of the causes for detaining children in Winona County. In a nine-month period in 2017 and 2018, the Winona County Attorney’s Office charged 40 juveniles with offenses, of which five cases involved violence or sexual harassment, according to records from the county attorney’s office. The rest of the offenses ranged from curfew violations to drug possession and theft. Twenty-one juveniles were incarcerated — most only until their first court hearing. Only two of those 21 juveniles were detained for violent crimes. Eight juveniles were detained for an extended period of time; two of those cases involved violent crimes, while half of them dealt with alcohol or drug offenses.

As of Feb. 15, there were two juveniles with Winona County criminal charges who were put in out-of-home placement, Sonneman said. She said Minnesota places more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, which her office takes to heart. 

“My office upholds the law, and we are committed to early intervention and prevention policies and programs to help keep juveniles from entering the juvenile justice system in the first place, and, if they do enter the system, that we help divert those who we can out of the system through my office’s juvenile diversion program, and through our collaboration with our local Department of Corrections’ Restorative Justice program,” she said. 

But Tova Strange of Community Not Cages said some of her Winona acquaintances entered the juvenile justice system and then found themselves stuck there by gravitational circumstances. Regardless of their initial crime, the subsequent probation violations — usually nonviolent — sent them back to lockup. Some of them came into the system at 13 or 14 years old and stayed on probation until 21, she said. “Most of them, once they got into the system, never really got out,” Strange said. 

The general public is unaware of the way the juvenile system really operates, she said. 

Asked for her reaction to the possibility of the old jail being used to house juveniles, Strange felt it would make it more likely for juveniles to be incarcerated in the first place. 

“For us to sit here and assume that they’re just going to build it ‘in case we need it’ is kind of ridiculous and naive,” she said. “If they’re going to spend all this money to build it, they are going to ensure that it’s full, [to the point where] it’s at least making the money back. We’re not going to have an empty juvie facility in town.”

Regardless of whether or not the county actually intends to use the old jail as a juvenile detention facility, it is inching closer to the idea. The County Board voted in December to direct officials to research the proposal. 

Sonneman said in an interview with the Post that a potential new juvenile facility should not be similar to the adult jail it replaces. It should not be a correctional facility that incarcerates children for months, but a detention facility for children to stay over a matter of days, with each room akin to a college dorm, she said. 

“You can only keep a kid in detention for up to eight days, and then you have to review their placement,” she said. “So this would be eight days or less, and hopefully pushing the idea that we don’t want to detain kids for any longer than necessary.”

As to the practice of solitary confinement, Sonneman said she does not advocate its use either for children or for adults. Asked to reconcile that with the possibility the children her office charges may end up in solitary anyway, even if she has no direct control over it, Sonneman said this: “I didn’t take this job knowing it would be easy. It’s not.”

Post editor Chris Rogers contributed to this story. 


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