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MILACA, MINN. – Andrea Gunderson spends most days lying in her bunk. On occasion, by taking her multiple medications, she sleeps up to 20 straight hours just to pass the time.
“We’re all going crazy in here,” she said in an interview at Mille Lacs County jail, her home for the next six months.
Last summer, things were different. As an inmate at Minnesota’s women’s prison in Shakopee, Gunderson was taking mental wellness classes and on her way to a GED. She took part in a parenting program that allowed her to spend four hours with her 12-year-old daughter every Saturday.
Now her only visits are limited to 20 minutes through a video screen.
Gunderson, who is serving a six-year sentence for identity theft, ranks among thousands of state inmates who have been shipped to county jails to alleviate overcrowding in Minnesota prisons.
The difference is significant. Jails like Mille Lacs are county operated and designed for temporarily housing inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. Prisons are state run and built for long-term stay, offering programs to help rehabilitate inmates and return them to society, along with more comprehensive treatment for mental health and addiction.
This contrast in programming for offenders has drawn criticism from people like Brad Colbert, a public defender and law professor, who says state prisoners don’t belong in county jails.
“I subscribe to the philosophy that if you’re going to lock someone up, you’re responsible for them,” said Colbert, who teaches at Mitchell Hamline law school and runs a legal clinic for prisoners. “That doesn’t mean you have to give them a Ritz-Carlton experience, but you have to treat them respectfully.”
When the Department of Corrections started sending inmates to jails in 2013, it was intended to be a short-term fix to an immediate problem. But after three years, this has become the indefinite solution to overcrowding. As of early March, nearly 400 state prisoners resided in jails.
Legislators are debating long-term plans to address overpopulation, but with a short session and a long list of other issues on the table — gun control, Iron Range unemployment and a projected $900 million budget surplus, to name a few — some lawmakers have speculated that prisons won’t make the cut this year.
In the meantime, Minnesota’s correctional system could be on the verge of a whole new crisis: space could run out in the jails, too.
“That is a realistic possibility,” said Tracy Hosking, capacity manager with DOC. “We have not hit that absolute ceiling yet, but we have experienced difficulties. So I think we’ve come close to that ceiling.”
Stagnating in jail
When Gunderson first arrived in Mille Lacs, she pleaded with prison administrators to take her back to Shakopee. She complained that she wasn’t getting adequate physical and mental health treatment. Without long visits, she feared that she would lose her relationship with her daughter.
“I really feel like there is no way I can improve my life here,” she wrote in one letter to a program manager at Shakopee. “I need the help your prison has to offer to grow and get the skills to move on. I’m scared if I don’t get help next time I go to the streets I will die.”
“I don’t want to be a loser and die,” she wrote in another. “I want help and change. Please, please help me.”
Other DOC inmates serving time in county jails also expressed frustration about losing constructive services and stagnating in jail.
Autumn Mason, also in Mille Lacs, is scheduled to get out of prison on work release in May. Mason, finishing a sentence for vehicular homicide, planned to spend her last stretch in prison preparing for re-entry to society, she said. Instead, she expects to sit in jail right up until her release date.
At Shakopee, Mason took classes on restorative justice, parenting and a college-level math course, she said. Now she spends her time playing cards and watching TV.
“I’m not doing anything that would benefit me when I get out,” said Mason.
Ojibwe tribal member Karol House, another Mille Lacs inmate, participated in American Indian pipe ceremonies as a prisoner at Shakopee and said she can no longer take part in rituals “so essential to our pride and our way of life” in the jail.
“Your freedom of religion really doesn’t exist in here,” said House, who was also pulled out of college classes and a paid job, she said. House has been incarcerated since 2003 for second-degree murder.
Over in Sherburne County jail, DOC inmate Robert Thomas said the problems go beyond lack of programming. In Sherburne, a 15-minute local phone call costs $5.60, or about 15 times more than in a DOC facility. The jail also charges significantly more for essential items like toiletries. He said he’s not allowed to hang up pictures in his cell and exercise time is limited to 50 minutes a day, far less than at DOC facilities.
In correspondence by letter with the Star Tribune, Thomas said he’s been ordered to state-mandated treatment, but he hasn’t received it, which delays his ability to apply for work release. The DOC acknowledged that treatment must be completed before an offender can be accepted into work release, but said that county jail placement does not prevent an offender from being admitted to treatment. Rather, delays result from a shortage of resources.
In December, Thomas — serving time for a felony drug charge — filed a legal petition in Ramsey County demanding he be resentenced with reduced time, alleging the conditions of the Sherburne jail and lack of rehabilitative programming amounts to “atypical hardship” and a possible constitutional violation. A judge recently denied the claim, saying Thomas didn’t show sufficient evidence of unconstitutional practice. Thomas has refiled the petition. He’s also written several letters to Gov. Mark Dayton and other politicians criticizing the state’s use of jails for prisoners.
“Since when did we deserve to lose any and all of our liberty interests that we were originally given by DOC such as contact visits, being able to write with a pen, being able to have our fingernail and toenail clippers and razors, an actual library, being able to go outside?” he wrote to one senator.
Space running out in jail
Bruce Reiser, assistant commissioner with DOC, acknowledged that shipping inmates to jails isn’t ideal. But with a rising prison population, he said the department doesn’t have any other options.
Minnesota is often celebrated for having one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but it’s also seen the fifth-fastest growth rate in prison population in the nation over the past 15 years, according to DOC data. The state hasn’t built a new prison since 2000, and the demand for beds has long outpaced resources.
Currently, DOC has contracts with 18 jails in Minnesota. It costs the state about $55 per day to house an inmate in jail — less than in prisons — plus additional health costs.
DOC officials said they have strict criteria for whom they choose to send to the jails, selecting only low- or medium-security inmates without great need for medical or mental health treatment. Some inmates complain that this amounts to punishment for good behavior, but Reiser said that’s not the department’s intention.
“If you talk to the offenders, they would probably say, ‘yeah, it’s not fair,’ ” said Reiser. “But we have an obligation to house these guys. And we have to do what we have to do to make sure we have beds.”
Given the fluidity of the inmate population, it’s unclear how much longer the jails can sustain the influx — but the prison population is growing.
The DOC is equipped to hold about 9,560 inmates. As of January, the population was 10,100. The DOC projects that number will reach about 10,600 by 2020 and 10,885 by 2022 — more than 1,300 inmates over present capacity.
If space does run out in the jails, Reiser said DOC might have to start looking at housing offenders in “areas that cause just a lot of security issues,” such as gyms.
He hopes it won’t come to that. With the 2016 legislative session underway, lawmakers have already introduced proposals to address overcrowding in the long term.
“Everything really centers on what happens with those initiatives,” said the DOC’s Hosking.
No clear path ahead
Last year, legislators created a task force designed to come up with solutions to prison overpopulation in Minnesota. After six months of testimony and debate, two competing solutions have emerged: reduce the prison population or find more space for it to grow into.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has spearheaded the push to reduce the prison population, in large part through reforming Minnesota’s drug laws.
A plan to do so is already in motion. Last December, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission approved a landmark proposal to overhaul sentencing recommendations for drug offenders, which would dramatically lower prison time for some. If the Legislature does nothing, the new guidelines will go into effect in August, and over the next 10 years it would save 560 beds, according to guidelines commission data.
Latz wants to let the proposal go through and make the amended guidelines retroactive, which would expedite the reduction. Latz also supports Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to expand an early release program at DOC.
On the other side of the debate is Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who plans to introduce a bill to block the sentencing reforms altogether, saying they don’t make sense at a time when drug use is on the rise. Instead, Cornish supports the state leasing Prairie Correctional Facility, a 1,600-bed, privately owned prison in Appleton, Minn., that’s been empty since 2010. Cornish and others say this could be an immediate solution to overcrowding and a much-needed boon to Swift County’s troubled economy, but the proposal has drawn fierce criticism from legislators and advocacy groups who don’t want Minnesota to do business with the prison’s controversial owner, Corrections Corp. of America.
At a task force meeting earlier this month, Cornish alluded to the reality that these ideological disagreements could be a recipe for gridlock.
“I don’t want to throw a damper on these ideas,” said Cornish, “but this is a short session.”