Jail lay offs file photo

Photo by Chris Rogers

Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell (right) and Sheriff Ron Ganrude (left) spoke at a public forum on the new jail project in 2018.

by CHRIS ROGERS

 

Following a change in plans for the new jail’s construction, Winona County will lay off much of its jail staff on September 7. 

County officials told the Post last week that during the year-and-a-half-long construction of a new jail, the existing jail will operate at a reduced capacity, holding small numbers of inmates for short stints while the county shuttles most inmates to neighboring jails.

The county will lay off all 13 detention deputies — the jail’s rank and file staff — but county officials expect to immediately rehire six or seven of the deputies to work interim jobs during the construction of the new jail, leaving another six or seven without jobs. When the new jail is completed, likely in 2023, the county will need to replace its full complement of detention deputies.

Sheriff Ron Ganrude called the decision the hardest he’s made in his over 40-year career, and County Administrator Ken Fritz said it was difficult but the only responsible move for taxpayers. A sheriff’s department staff member criticized county leaders for, as he saw it, passing on opportunities to keep the detention deputies employed during the interim period. He pointed out the county would lose experienced jail staff, only to later be forced to replace them at a time when many law enforcement agencies struggle to fill job vacancies.

“We don’t want to see anybody laid off, but in this situation there just isn’t a good way to make it all work and still respect the budget and the taxpayers in the process,” Fritz said. “So we don’t really want to let anybody be in that situation or lose any experience either; it’s just the way the situation is.”

Contrasting the county’s $28-million investment in a new jail with its decision to layoff its experienced jail staff, a sheriff’s department staff member said, “It’s like the sheriff went to [a car dealership], bought the best, brand new car they could, and when they picked it up, said, take the engine out. We don’t need it.” The staff member spoke on condition of anonymity because of a policy prohibiting employees from disparaging the department. 

Winona County has been planning the construction of its new jail since 2016, when the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) ordered the existing jail be shut down completely at the end of next month because its infrastructure does not meet modern building codes. Until recently, county officials expected that, so long as they were on their way to building a new jail, the DOC would extend that shutdown deadline and allow the existing jail to remain open during construction of the new facility. Sheriff’s department leaders said no layoffs would be needed because the existing jail would remain open and the new jail would require a similar number of staff.

That all changed this summer. Ganrude said that, as part of the final design of the new jail, the DOC informed county officials they needed to add a two-layered system of locking doors — a security feature known as sally ports — to the dispatch center, which is located in the existing jail. County dispatchers pull double duty, answering 911 calls and also remotely operating jail doors, which triggered the requirement for secure sally ports. Along with the DOC requirement, county leaders wanted to upgrade and expand the dispatch center. Currently, there are no attached bathrooms or a break room for dispatchers, Ganrude explained. “Anytime anyone in dispatch needs a snack or anything, they have to leave the dispatch center, which is not good,” he noted. So Ganrude and his fellow county leaders decided to remodel part of the existing jail into a bigger dispatch center.

That solved one problem but created another: The remodeling work would take up much of the existing jail and generate a ton of noise throughout the remaining cell blocks. “We wouldn’t have room to house prisoners here … and then the noise would be pretty hard to deal with,” Ganrude said.

So, county leaders opted to send inmates elsewhere. Fritz said the existing jail had been downgraded by the DOC to a 72-hour holding facility, while Ganrude said the jail had not been downgraded and would still have ability to hold inmates beyond 72 hours, but that when remodeling and construction got too disruptive, the county would send its inmates to neighboring jails. 

In a 72-hour holding facility, inmates are typically held overnight or over the weekend at most before being released or transferred to a longer term facility. Winona County sends many inmates to the neighboring Houston County and Wabasha County jails, which have excess capacity. Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said of the plan for the existing jail during construction, “I don’t want to call it a book and release, but it’s basically a book and release.”

That means the county will need to run additional shuttles to transport inmates to and from Winona County court dates, but, at least during the lengthy construction timeline for the new jail, it will not need the same number of full-time deputies staffing the existing jail. “It’d be probably somewhere between 16-18 months where we just don’t need all the staff that we have,” Fritz explained. County administrators decided to lay off the detention deputies.

“I would say this was the hardest decision I’ve had in my 41 years,” Ganrude said. “Very tough — it impacts a lot of people, a lot of staff and their families. It was not easy to decide.”

A sheriff’s department staff member said Ganrude and Buswell announced the layoffs on July 20. The county gave the laid-off deputies the chance to apply for six to seven newly created jobs operating the existing jail during the interim period. In addition to the option of taking a layoff, the county is offering deputies one year’s worth of single health insurance coverage if they voluntarily quit.

“We tried to make it as easy as possible and to try to make the best possible of a difficult situation,” Fritz said. The county also gave laid-off employees the chance to apply for other open positions within county government.

“As an employee, you got through all the emotions,” the sheriff’s department staff member said. “You’re upset. You’re pissed off. But I think the main question every staff member has is, why? … We have not been given an explanation as to why the county isn’t willing to help these 13 employees in some shape or form, knowing that they are going to need them again in the future.” He continued, “Why are we going to hire more part-time [transport] officers when we have 13 officers who are willing to work?”

During the COVID pandemic, detention deputies took on new roles, staffing mass testing and vaccination clinics, and generally helping with whatever the county needed. “We were considered essential employees, and now we are not,” the staff member said.

Asked whether the county could keep the detention deputies around to shuttle inmates, Ganrude said, there just isn’t that much consistent transportation work. “The issue with keeping staff on to be the transport officers is I could have one, two, three people sitting around here looking for something to do, but we don’t have any transports to do … It’s kind of a hit and miss for what we would need,” he explained.

Asked about losing experienced staff only to try to replace them in 18 months, Ganrude responded that the new jail’s completely different layout will mean that jail staff have to be retrained regardless. “Even the staff we keep will be trained completely differently than how they’re trained now,” he said. “There’s going to be a learning curve for everyone involved for that,” he added.

The sheriff said he and fellow department leaders talked through all the options. “This was the decision we made, not an easy decision, but that’s what we decided to do,” Ganrude said.

Chris@winonapost.com