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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 03 2012

Grand Forks County Jail: There’s room for ‘paying customers’

GRAND FORKS – The Grand Forks County Jail is starting to experience some growing pains, and that has Administrator Bret Burkholder looking down the road at an expansion of the $16 million building that is not yet 5 years old.

While the 242-bed facility is not exactly overcrowded, the average number of prisoners has risen steadily in recent years and is likely to surpass 200 a day this year, based on bookings so far.

That’s an occupancy rate of 82.6 percent; the federal government recommends 80 percent to maintain security standards and provide flexibility for different types of prisoners, according to Burkholder.

He estimated the expansion would cost $8 million and asked for it to be built in 2014 as part of the county’s five-year major-projects plan.

“None of those things in there are cut in stone,” said County Commission Chairman John Schmisek, who initiated the planning process. “It’s just something that we want to be aware of, so we could know the potential of what could be coming up.”

William “Spud” Murphy, a longtime Grand Forks County commissioner who serves on the county law enforcement committee, cautions that any discussion hangs under the cloud of Measure 2.

If passed on June 12, the statewide referendum would abolish property taxes in North Dakota, including the county’s main source of revenue.

Growing population

Once a liability, the jail has developed into a money-making asset.

In 2007, the year it opened and before Burkholder was hired, the facility averaged 157 prisoners per day and operated at a loss of $500,000. By 2010, it averaged 175 a day.

In 2011, the average number of prisoners dropped to 160 but the center operated at a profit of about $130,000, with an accumulated cash balance of more than $800,000.

The population has been growing every month this year, according to Burkholder, averaging 205 a day in April, with a high of 217 and a low of 188 within the month.

The projected cash balance at the end of 2012 is about $852,000.

‘Paying customers'

The jail has increased its annual number of bed days – one for each day each prisoner is incarcerated – by more than 6,000 since 2007.

About a third are what is officially known as “per diems” but what jail officials refer to as “paying customers” – prisoners from other government agencies, who those agencies pay the county to shelter and feed.

In 2011, the Grand Forks jail had a total of 64,032 bed days, of which 22,274 were those “paying customers.”

The payment rate varies from $60 to $75 a day, depending on the agency, which may include federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshal’s Office or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the North Dakota Penitentiary, or other counties and cities.

In 2010, the record year, “paying customers” contributed $1.75 million to the county, according to Burkholder. The total since the jail opened is about

$7.5 million – or nearly half of the cost of the facility.

In addition, Burkholder has established a federal transport team, which is paid to transfer prisoners to and from court, medical facilities or other institutions.

“The good thing is that Bret has really turned that facility around,” Schmisek said, by developing a working relationship with the federal agencies that can send prisoners to the jail.

“If this growth keeps going, we’ll have to think about putting another pod on the building,” said Murphy. “The building’s designed for that.”

No perfect fit

While the jail has more beds than prisoners, it is unlikely to operate at full capacity, or with one prisoner for each bed, year-round, according to Burkholder.

The main reason is it must keep separate different classes of prisoners, including men and women; sentenced and unsentenced; maximum- and minimum-security; medical, mental health or special needs; or disciplinary.

The current facility is built to maximum-security standards. Even offices and training rooms may be converted to prisoner housing.

An addition could be built to minimum-security standards, possibly housing work-release prisoners, offices and training areas, according to Burkholder. The current facility could then be remodeled to handle the growing number of prisoners, including more beds for those with mental health issues and for women in work-release.

Burkholder said an expansion could make room for a larger work area for prisoners, offices for social workers and classrooms for jail education programs.

Long-term planning

But it’ll take a lot of planning to get there.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, and it shouldn’t,” Burkholder said. “Building or remodeling a building of this nature takes a lot of thought and insight in the design of current and expected needs.”

Before taking the job in Grand Forks, Burkholder spent 19 years as deputy administrator of Tri-County Corrections in Crookston, Minn., where a new regional jail and justice center opened in 2008 after a

10-year planning process.

The current Grand Forks County Jail replaced the old jail downtown, a facility that was overcrowded and frequently failed state inspections. The building still serves as the county juvenile detention center.

Conditions at the old jail forced the county’s hand, at least to some degree, on building the new correctional center.

Burkholder said that’s exactly the situation he wants to avoid. “The time to think is now, not when at over capacity, experiencing housing problems or losing per diems.”

Grand Forks County’s current debt load from major building projects is just more than $21 million, including the jail, the County Office Building, the city/county parking ramp and the remodeling of the courthouse. The debt on the jail alone was $13.5 million at the end of 2011.

“I think the county’s in pretty good shape, from a building standpoint,” Murphy said. “Once those bonds are paid off, the county will be should be pretty well set for years into the future.”

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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