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What to do about the Becker County Jail? Commissioners hash things out with consultant

There are so many unanswered questions that it’s difficult to know where to even start.

Looking at jail options with newly-hired consultant Allen Brinkman, the Becker County Board discussed options, suggestions and direction for nearly an hour Tuesday.

Brinkman, who was involved with the Department of Corrections for 15 years as a jail inspector before retiring early in 2005 and starting his own consulting business, said he knew the Becker County Jail and its issues long before being hired on.

Deficiencies found 12 years ago were fixed, but now they are clanking on the county’s jail cell bars once again – there’s just not enough room.

Separation and classification

The separation and classification of inmates is tying up space at the jail. Since females can’t be integrated with males, all females, regardless of their crime, are held at the maximum security jail. That is tying up space for beds needed for the maximum security males, who instead are being shipped off to neighboring counties.

Becker County has been housing 10 males in Hubbard County at a rate of $55 a day each, but that space may come to an end soon as well.

Hubbard County has agreed to house 20 state inmates, leaving no room for the Becker County inmates. The space is actually available, it’s a big jail, but Becker County Sheriff Kelly Shannon said Hubbard County doesn’t want to hire enough personnel to staff more of the jail.

Becker County has 10 inmates in Hubbard County and one in Otter Tail County.

He said that he is concerned that as of mid-August, if Hubbard County doesn’t reconsider, Becker County will be busing inmates to various counties, making it very inefficient and wasting a lot of time and money on the road transporting them back and forth.

“It would be a logistical nightmare,” he said.

The jail was built in 1979, and by today’s standards, “lacks function and flow” that a new building would provide, Brinkman said. The linear design of the maximum security jail is a maze of hallways, creating a need for a higher staffing rate.

New jails are being built in a podular style, having a dispatch area in the center and straight halls off there where inmates and cells can be seen from that center location.

That style would decrease Becker County’s Jail personnel load by about 30 percent.

Exploring options

Brinkman said that if the county decides to just update the deficiencies in the existing jail, they are then required to bring it up to code – that means plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.

At some point in time, some of those items – like security doors in use now – will cease to be used and have to be replaced, too.

He questioned if it’s good stewardship of taxpayer money to update the jail and continue to do so, since its layout is so flawed.

Because of new regulations on cell sizes, the jail would also lose some of its 48-bed capacity, but how much he’s not certain at this point.

Also, with retrofitting the existing jail, the inmates would have to be housed elsewhere for a longer period of time while the jail is under reconstruction, costing the county a large sum and creating a possibly chaotic situation, with inmates housed in jails throughout the state.

If the county puts money into upgrading the existing jail, Commissioner Ben Grimsley questioned, could the county reduce the staffing numbers? “Good question,” Brinkman said.

Commissioner Barry Nelson also questioned partnering with the state to provide space for state inmates, and therefore partnering on cost of a new building.

Brinkman said that while that sounds like a good idea, the county should never rely on the state to supply inmates.

He said that unless the county could get a long-term contract with the state – which he thinks is very unlikely – Becker County will fall into the same trap as several other counties, which built bigger jails than they needed, anticipating a contract with the state, that now sit half-empty because it never happened.

He also added that at some point, the state will likely build its own facility because of the cost of having to house inmates throughout the state in county jails.      

“The state is doing the same as you are on a different level,” he told the board.

“You’re also not getting the cream of the crop, which creates a whole new set of problems and issues,” Shannon said, meaning that the state would possibly send the rougher inmates to the county rather than having to house them.

The county should build to fit its own needs, with the option of adding on in the future if needed, but not building in hopes of getting inmates from outside sources, Brinkman said.

Early release?

Brinkman asked if the county and courts were using every possible option for freeing up space in the jail, like early release with electronic home monitoring.

Shannon said the county implemented its own Sentencing to Service program like the state’s, in which inmates can work on supervised projects and earn an earlier release date. For every two days they work, one day is shaved off their sentence.

Nelson asked if all females who weren’t maximum security worthy – like writing bad checks or shoplifting for example – could be released with electronic home monitoring. Shannon said yes, that is a possibility.

 Grimsley questioned keeping the jail as is and building a minimum security jail for females. Shannon said that they would need more staffing then.

“I focus on staffing,” Brinkman said. “Staffing is an ongoing cost – it’s forever. Brick and mortar is a one-time cost.”

Shannon said he couldn’t see releasing maximum security inmates any earlier, though. Nelson said it would only be doable, in his mind, if they were released into some of sort of intensive program, like drug rehab for example, not just put back out on the streets.

Next logical step

Numbers. And answers. That’s what commissioners want when it comes to the next step.

The options that Brinkman will look at include retrofitting the jail and bringing it up to code. How much would it cost? How long would inmates have to be farmed out while the jail was closed? How much would that cost? Even if updated, what is the life expectancy of the building?

That would include walking through the jail with the Department of Corrections and an architect to see what needs to be done and an estimate of what it would cost.

Another option is to add a facility by the existing minimum security jail. County Administrator Jack Ingstad said the county had checked into that and that there is no land available there.

Another option to be explored is building a new building on another site.

One spot that is a possibility would be the industrial park, which could work as a possible land deal with the city. The county owns land along Highway 59 that the city would like for development – more appealing than a jail.

Nelson questioned if it would be a good fit to locate a jail on the same land as the public works building the county intends to build in the future. Brinkman said that would be a good fit and other counties have done just that.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.