WINONA, MINN. – The squat brown jailhouse tucked into the corner of W. 3rd and 4th streets in downtown Winona has served its time.
Built 41 years ago, its doorways are too narrow, it lacks the controlled entries required to house high-risk inmates, and its locks are so old it’s hard to get parts to maintain them. It fails to meet federal access requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, too, and is not compliant with state fire codes or corrections standards for programs that help reduce recidivism.
“This was just designed to get us out of a 1913 jail,” said Capt. Steven Buswell, Winona County’s longtime jail administrator.
The sun is setting on the Winona County jail, a poorly designed lockup that found itself out of compliance with revised state corrections standards just two years after it began operating in 1978. Now, after years of study and a patchwork of temporary fixes, county officials are scrambling to replace the cramped facility at a cost of $18 million to $21 million before it faces closure in two years by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Winona County is not alone. After years of warnings, the DOC wrote “sunset orders” for the Itasca and Lake of the Woods county jails as well, giving them until the summer of 2021 to get new facilities built. And the agency appears ready to sanction other counties in the coming years.
Rice County, downgraded to a 90-day lockup on Nov. 1, is seeking an extension that would allow the jail to keep holding inmates for up to a year on the condition that the County Board pass a resolution this month to build a new jail.
But county commissioners and sheriffs are balking at the steep cost of building modern jails. Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell says they have a point and wonders if there’s a better way.
“Could you have more regionalized facilities where there’s a cost-sharing arrangement?” he wonders.
It’s a concept that was successfully tried in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region in 1976, but never took hold elsewhere across the state.
Cost to rebuild high
The DOC inspects 85 county jails on a two-year cycle unless special concerns prompt it to inspect on an annual basis. The Star Tribune reviewed 10 years of jail inspection reports and found serious ongoing deficiencies in Becker, Chippewa and Martin county jails as well.
Tim Thompson, the DOC’s inspections unit director, said a slew of jails were built in the early 2000s, but new construction came to a halt in 2008 with the Great Recession. Now, the DOC is applying leverage to get longstanding problem jails rebuilt.
“Many times the county boards want us … to be the bad guys,” Thompson said. When citizens complain about the cost of a new jail, he said, “they can push back and say ‘the Department of Corrections is making us do this.’ ”
Schnell sympathizes with their complaints.
“Just knowing how much these facilities cost, I mean, it’s staggering,” he said, noting that the debt service on bonds for a new jail can cost $1 million to $2 million a year.
That’s a heavy toll for sparsely populated rural counties. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of staff — assuming they can be found — which accounts for about 85% of a jail’s total costs.
“I think there’s a recognition that some of these costs are not sustainable in the long run,” Schnell said.
And yet, he said, the DOC must enforce state standards designed to protect the inmates, guards and communities where the jails are located.
He said DOC officials are planning to meet with the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and the Association of Minnesota Counties to discuss whether regional jails make more economic sense for some jurisdictions.
Minnesota has two regional jail authorities, both of which were established 43 years ago.
The Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw is operated jointly by Carlton, Cook, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis counties. It holds minimum security inmates who’ve already been sentenced.
The Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston serves Norman, Polk and Red Lake counties as a Class III jail holding all classifications of inmates. Polk County operates it for the joint-powers entity called Tri-County Community Corrections.
Andrew Larson, Tri-County’s executive director, said the jail has been contacted by other administrators and sheriffs curious about establishing regional jails.
“However, I don’t know that it’s ever really gained much traction,” Larson said. “The idea of a regional jail that is not typically run by a sheriff is something difficult for counties to wrap their heads around.”
Polk County issued a bond to build Tri-County’s current, 200-bed jail, which is now 10 years old. It’s equal distance between the two smaller counties, Norman and Red Lake, which each pay Tri-County fees based on a five-year rolling average of their jail usage. The three counties each appoint two county commissioners to the Tri-County board.
“It works great as long as you can get the commissioners, sheriffs and everybody else on board,” Larson said.
The jail has averaged about 185 inmates a day this year. Of those, 120 are from the participating counties. The jail boards inmates from other state and federal jurisdictions for a fee, which offsets the three counties’ costs. Larson said regional jails make financial sense for rural areas.
“It’s just more efficient,” he said. “And it’s equally effective.”
Winona County scrambling
Winona County considered building a regional jail a decade ago with Houston, Fillmore and Wabasha counties.
“A lot of people were for it,” Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said. But it ran into resistance from elected officials. Wabasha and Houston counties have since built their own jails, leaving Winona and Fillmore counties on their own.
“Of course, looking at it now, it would have been nice if three to four counties had gone in on it then,” Ganrude said. “It doesn’t work for us now.”
Winona County is scrambling to buy a former automobile dealership’s lot next to the existing jail and get a new law enforcement center built.
The county plans to repurpose the old jail, which is under orders to close by Sept. 30, 2021.
“We’re hopeful that if we show the DOC that we’re seriously doing the project, they will give us a little more time at the end,” Ganrude said.