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Nathan Bowe, Forum News Service, Published March 24 2014

Becker County weighs options for aging jail; joint facility with Clay among possibilities

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — First the good news: It isn’t going to cost Becker County half a million dollars to fix the electronic locks at its 48-bed jail here.

The state Department of Corrections, which recently finished its annual jail inspection, has decided that good old-fashioned keys will work just fine for now.

That gives the county board some breathing room to decide what to do about the jail, located above the sheriff’s department in the south wing of the courthouse. One option could be to partner on a jail with Clay County, which has been studying a new jail more than a decade.

Maximum- and medium-security inmates serve their sentences at the jail, but prisoners of all security levels are kept there until sentencing. After that, minimum-security inmates are housed at a different facility.

Built in 1979 with a 25-year lifespan, the jail is starting to show its 35 years of double-bunked hard time. The plumbing requires ongoing repairs, and the heating, cooling and ventilation doesn’t work well.

The jail’s air quality is poor because of the aging ventilation system, and the smoke detectors “are a serious concern,” the report said. “The age of the smoke detector heads makes them obsolete and they cannot be fixed or replaced.”

Shifts in the jail’s floating foundation cause cracks that sometimes funnel rainwater and snowmelt into offices in the sheriff’s department below, where it is caught in buckets or plastic garbage cans.

The design is outdated and inefficient, requiring a jail staff of about 21 full-timers and a half-dozen part-timers. That would be enough to handle a jail population of 120 to 150 in a modern jail, designed with a central control room that has “line of sight” over the whole facility.

That’s how the Hubbard County Jail is designed.

It opened in May 2006 with 116 beds and is staffed to hold up to 60 inmates.

Since it has been operating at only about half-capacity, Hubbard County commissioners were willing to listen when Becker County recently made overtures about possibly sharing the jail through a joint powers agreement.

Becker and Clay officials also met this past week to discuss possibly sharing a jail, Clay County Administrator Brian Berg said Monday.

Clay County doesn’t have a timeline on when it will build the new jail it’s been discussing since at least 2004, but officials have been studying possible financing options in recent months, Berg said.

Becker County also is examining the possibility of adding a third story to its existing jail, or building its own new jail.

“We’re looking at options,” said Sheriff Kelly Shannon.

Due to the inspection, the county will have to sink about $90,000 into repairs that must be done relatively soon.

“We had budgeted $70,000,” said Becker County Administrator Jack Ingstad. “It will give us three to five years to come up with (a long-term solution).”

Previous state jail inspections have focused more on paperwork compliance, recordkeeping, facility maintenance and the treatment of inmates. This one focused more on the building’s physical condition.

Some of the urgency has gone away because the state isn’t pushing repair of the electronic locks.

The state thought all cells could be opened electronically from the central control office, and wanted that feature fixed as a safety precaution so inmates could be evacuated quickly in case of fire.

But the system was never designed that way. Instead, electronic controls outside each cell are inside a locked box that has to be opened with a key.

It’s actually quicker to use a key to directly open the cell door, which is how the jailers have been doing it for years.

Items of concern

The Becker County Jail is full, and the county is now paying to board 20 inmates at the Hubbard County Jail, Shannon said.

The state is not wild about the joint powers proposal with Hubbard County, he said.

“The Department of Corrections said we would fill Hubbard County up right away and we’d be right back to where we are now,” he said.

Female inmates also pose a problem at the Becker County Jail, which houses eight women in one dorm-style room. They range in classification from minimum security to maximum security, and the state says that’s not OK.

“You can’t mix shoplifting and assault cases,” Shannon said.

Becker County is now looking at signing a contract with Hubbard County to provide 15 jail beds for a year, starting immediately, he added.

“Hubbard County can handle 30 to 31 females,” he said.

In the annual inspection report, Becker County also was rung up for not having a written disaster plan and not holding an annual emergency evacuation.

The jail also was faulted for not conducting daily checks for breaches in security and contraband, “especially in inmate cells where they have the ability and time to create breaches in security,” the report said. “Breaches in security clearly contributed to the escape of two inmates that occurred April 2013. The escape would have been preventable if daily inspections were being properly performed.”

Other items of concern at the Becker County Jail from the Minnesota Department of Corrections report:

  • The jail must create a policy and procedure to account for all sets of keys for the facility.

  • Inmate medical records must be put in locked cabinets.

  • The public health nurse that works with inmates is recommended to get 16 hours of training on safety and security procedures at the jail.

  • Recreation and program space is inadequate for the inmates.

  • The jail is not suitable for handicapped or special-management inmates. The report strongly recommends they not be housed there.

  • Shakedowns to check for contraband are now done at random. The report calls for a shakedown schedule to make sure the entire jail is covered, and to hold more frequent shakedowns.