Outside contract workers are replacing inmates in the Scott County jail’s kitchen and laundry service, a move officials hope will ease ongoing problems finding suitable inmates to do the work.

The county is hiring companies affiliated with the Keefe Group to provide phone and video visitation, commissary, laundry and food service at an annual cost of $446,000, about $34,000 more than this year. Most services will switch over in early 2020, according to a County Board memo.

Putting inmates to work long has been common practice for jails. It’s often seen as a smart idea, offering a way for inmates to stay busy and learn skills while providing the county with low-cost labor.

“The perception can be … you have 130 people in jail, why don’t you have 130 people at work?” Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said.

But Hennen said the new contract makes sense, since the jail has struggled to find suitable workers to fill the seven or so kitchen and laundry positions. In order to be eligible to work in the jail, the inmates must be convicted and sentenced, he said.

“We can barely scrape together four a lot of times,” he said.

Since 70% of the jail population typically is awaiting trial, only about 30% are eligible for work. And many nonviolent offenders are on probation, so the potential job pool in jail includes a high percentage of violent offenders who aren’t appropriate for certain jobs.

“We can’t put them in a kitchen and give them knives,” the sheriff said.

Other problems include equipment being broken or abused. Inmates might load too much laundry in machines, use too much detergent or throw things away, Hennen said. Kitchen workers may dish out extra food for some people or fail to accommodate special dietary needs, he said.

“There’s all these costs behind the scenes here that aren’t really accounted for,” he said. “And then the quality is not there.”

Supervising inmate workers is time-consuming, he said, since health and welfare checks are required twice an hour, 16 hours a day — taking 715 hours of staff time annually.

The $446,000 kitchen and laundry agreement will cost the county $79,000 more than current costs. But with an additional $45,000 in revenue from the visitation and commissary agreements, the total increase in the county’s cost will be about $34,000.

The Keefe Group, a Missouri-based company, provides an array of services and products to correctional facilities across the country.

Along with staffing jail kitchens and laundry operations, its affiliates sell snacks and clothing and provide video conferencing so inmates can communicate with loved ones.

What other counties do

Hennen said Scott County jail inmates who want jobs can take part in the state’s Sentencing to Service program, which sends crews into the community to do roadside cleanup or other projects, whittling time off their sentences in the process.

The county hasn’t had enough inmates to participate in the program in recent years because they were needed in the kitchen and laundry, he said.

Some other metro counties contract with vendors for jail services. The Anoka County jail hired Aramark as a vendor about two years ago, which eliminated eight kitchen and laundry jobs for inmates, said Dave Pacholl, Anoka County jail commander. Inmates still do janitorial chores.

At the Ramsey County jail, private contractor Summit runs the kitchen without inmate labor because of the quick turnover at the jail, said Steve Lydon, Ramsey County jail superintendent.

Inmates can, however, work as “swampers” doing janitorial and laundry preparation, he said. They’re motivated by the chance to do something positive, get out of their cell and receive incentives like a $10 weekly stipend and extra meals.

County officials are discussing adding inmates to the kitchen in a few years since it could save money and keeps them occupied.

“We haven’t fully vetted it out,” Lydon said.

At the Dakota County jail, inmates working in the laundry room and kitchen saves the county money and gives them “a chance to get into [a] workday routine,” said Jacob Schak, a correctional sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office.

Hennepin County inmates work in the jail’s kitchen and laundry, a spokesperson said. Inmates who don’t qualify for those positions may get jobs cleaning up their housing units as “quad trustys.”

In Washington County, 13 to 18 inmates work in the kitchen, laundry and on an outdoor crew through Sentencing to Service.

The number of workers has been steady for two decades, said Jail Cmdr. Roger Heinen.

Pacholl said one issue in Anoka County is that the jail holds primarily pretrial inmates with an average stay of 15 days — not enough time to train and acclimate them to the job.

If the jail housed more sentenced inmates, Pacholl said, he might see value in assigning jobs.

Concerns about inmates stealing food and bringing in contraband through the kitchen also fueled the decision to hire Aramark, he said.

In addition, the jail assumes liability if something goes wrong on the job.

Using a vendor means officials spend less time worrying about minutiae, Pacholl said.

“It’s much simpler just to hire an outside company, because then they’re responsible for everything,” he said.