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Short-term reprieve for jail

The control room at the jail has windows and a bank of video monitors to track inmates. It lacks the sight lines of modern jails. DL NEWSPAPERS/Pippi Mayfield

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.

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.

Maximum- and medium-security inmates serve their sentences there, but prisoners of all security levels are kept there until sentencing.

After that, minimum-security inmates are housed at the county workhouse on Randolph Road.

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

“Plumbing throughout the jail is becoming problematic,” the jail inspection report states. “Replacement parts are not available, and the jail must retrofit new pneumatic parts (at $1,600 apiece) in order to keep the plumbing functioning.”

The air quality inside the jail is poor due to the aging ventilation system, and the smoke detectors “are a serious concern,” according to the inspection report. “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The design is outdated and inefficient, requiring a jail staff of about 21 full-timers and a half-dozen part-timers.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 of 2006 with 116 beds, and is currently staffed to hold up to 60 inmates.

Since its only been operating at about half-capacity, commissioners there were willing to listen when Becker County recently made overtures about possibly sharing the jail through some sort of joint powers agreement.

Becker County has also been talking with Clay County about an arrangement involving the new jail it plans to build, slated to open in 2018.

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

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

The inspection spurred the activity: 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 physical condition of the building.

Some of the urgency has gone away since 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 quickly be evacuated in case of fire.

But the system was never designed that way: Instead there are electronic controls outside each cell that 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.

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.

Women inmates pose a problem at the Becker County Jail, which now 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.

Now only minimum security female inmates can be held in the dorm, the others must be in suitable cells.

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 was also rung up for not having a written disaster plan, and not holding an annual emergency evacuation.

“It is vital for this facility to train staff on the actual evacuation procedures that must be followed in an emergency,” the report states. “Due to the physical plant of this facility, evacuating inmates is a concern…”

The jail also was dinged 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,” said the report. “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 from the 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.
  • Tuberculosis screening must be added to the list of medical screening for inmates.