From his Kandiyohi County jail cell, Dalfonzo Thompson became listless.
He slept for hours on end just to pass the time. Some days he never saw the sun.
“It sucked the life out of me a little bit — mentally and physically,” said Thompson, 25, who goes by Anthony, in a phone interview from the jail.
Things weren’t always so bleak. As an inmate at St. Cloud state prison last summer, Thompson kept occupied with his work assignment as a painter. He enjoyed yard time, a well-stocked library and contact visits that allowed him to embrace his loved ones.
Those privileges disappeared after just three months. Thompson, who is serving a six-year sentence for burglary, was among more than 100 state inmates warehoused in county jails this year to ease crowding — a practice that continued into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jails are designed for temporarily housing inmates, usually those who have been recently arrested, can’t make bail before their trial or are awaiting sentencing. Unlike state prisons, jails don’t offer the same level of drug treatment and classes to help rehabilitate inmates and prepare them to re-enter society. Some have no services at all.
This stark contrast in programming has criminal justice advocates decrying the indefinite limbo of those shipped to county jails, where inmates are often more isolated in rural communities.
When the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) started sending inmates to jails in 2013 to ease overcrowding, it was intended to be a short-term fix to an immediate problem. But after seven years, this has become an indefinite reality for inmates who should be in state prisons.
DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said he recognizes the hardship for those transported outside his system, but he defended the use of such a tool for managing a population constantly in flux.
“We’re always trading risk,” said Schnell, noting that his administration had started moving state inmates back to prisons last winter, but that re-entry process stalled when the coronavirus hit.
Since the pandemic began, more than 570 Minnesota prisoners have tested positive for the respiratory disease and two have died. At least 150 employees also fell ill, the majority of whom have since returned to duty.
“I can tell you unequivocally we would have no one [housed out of facility] today if it weren’t for COVID,” said Schnell, who has since committed to returning everyone under his care by Halloween. “It should be the option of last resort.”
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the state has made progress in reducing the number of prisoners in county jails since 2016, when he examined this issue as chair of a task force on prison population. At the time, the DOC housed about 400 prisoners in 18 jails across the state to mitigate a rapidly growing population that exceeded the 9,560-bed capacity. The population is now down to 7,596 — the lowest in more than a decade — in part due to pandemic-related releases, according to DOC records. As of last week, at least 57 state prisoners and release violators still resided in jails.
‘It’s been a nightmare’
During his short stint at St. Cloud prison, Thompson tried to stay positive by keeping himself busy. The prospect of earning college credits through higher education programming excited him. He spoke to family about learning to become an electrician.
“I was looking forward to using my time wisely,” he said in an interview. Relatives saw it as a sign of acceptance of his circumstances and determination to rehabilitate.
But a surprise transfer to Kandiyohi County jail last fall ripped those opportunities from him. Over the past 10 months there, friends and family watched as he slowly withdrew into himself.
“My son’s mental capacity has depleted so much,” said his mother, Lisa Clarke. “I’m concerned about the long-term effects.”
Others expressed frustration that problems extended far beyond a loss of constructive services. The inmate expenses for a jail stay far exceed that of prison.
Higher inmate costs
In Kandiyohi, a 15-minute local phone call costs $6 — around 15 times more than in a DOC facility. The jail also charges significantly more for essential items like toiletries, Clarke said, and takes a 27% cut of an inmate’s commissary purchases.
Unlike in state prisons, jail inmates don’t receive work assignments, so there’s no way for them to earn even menial pay while incarcerated. “It’s outrageously expensive,” said David Martinez, who estimates he blew through about $1,400 in seven months to stay in touch with his six children while he was locked up in county jail.
A probation violation in December 2019 sent Martinez back to prison, where he qualified for the Challenge Incarceration Program, a military-style boot camp allowing nonviolent inmates to earn early release. Martinez was told he’d start once he reached a medium-security prison, but he was shipped to Kandiyohi instead.
“Once there, they forget about you,” said Martinez, who sat in limbo for seven months before getting transferred back to Moose Lake. Now he’s at the back of the line for programming and may no longer be eligible for early release.
Prison officials say they follow strict criteria for whom they send to 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 Schnell said that’s not the department’s intention.
“This is about risk management,” he said during an Aug. 14 conference call with criminal justice activists fighting to lower the state’s prison population. “We want to get them all back, but do it in a way that doesn’t put them at risk.”
Family members of the incarcerated pressed Schnell on whether he would support ending all contracts between the DOC and county jails — partnerships long criticized for the financial benefit to local municipalities. County jails are reimbursed $60 per day to warehouse state prisoners, according to the contract obtained through a public records request. The contract also states that Kandiyohi County will be reimbursed up to $3.5 million for housing inmates over the past four years.
Schnell declined to support a full ban, saying that the short-term housing tool allows some inmates to remain in their own communities, while offering more flexibility for population management. He reassured listeners that he shared their goal of limiting the practice, but advocates weren’t convinced. They continued to push for hard details on when inmates shipped to county jails might return to state-run facilities.
“As soon as we can safely move them, we will move them,” he said. “That’s the answer.”