Winona County advisory committee calls for new jail

February 19, 2019

Winona County could be getting a new jail if the Winona County board moves forward with a Jail Advisory Committee recommendation released last week.

In the recommendation, the advisory committee called for the construction of a Class 3 detention center to replace the county’s aging jail, which is mandated to close in 2021.

The proposed facility would house up to 130 inmates for as long as a year and, unlike the existing jail, would include houses for juveniles and inmates with mental illnesses.

“The committee believes that a modern Class 3 facility with space for recreation, physical and mental health services, and programming to prepare inmates for life in the community, as well as space for juvenile detainees, is the best way to address the challenges associated with the sunset order,” the report reads.

County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell, who served on the advisory committee, said building a Class 3 facility was not only the best choice economically, but the best solution to address long-term needs.

“It’s not just about satisfying the DOC,” he said. “We need to take care of what’s needed in the community.”

Building a new jail won’t be cheap. The new jail — which would be constructed in the Law Enforcement Center parking lot adjacent to the existing jail — could cost an estimated $22 million to build and another $2.2 million a year to staff, according to the report.

However, according to the report, after 20 years, all four options considered by the committee — closing the jail, building a 72-hour holding facility, a 90-day facility or a 365-day facility — would all end up costing the county around $100 million.

The report also identified several opportunities to address “critical” gaps in service for juveniles and inmates suffering from mental health issues.

Juveniles were a particular concern for the committee. Because the existing jail can’t provide sight and sound separation for juveniles, they have to be transported to the nearest facility, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“A facility to house juveniles is badly needed in southeast Minnesota and beds could be made available to other counties when not in use by Winona County, create a potential revenue stream,” the report reads.

The report also called for community collaboration to create transitional housing for inmates after they are released and beds inmates suffering from mental illness.

According to Buswell, a modern jail is less about locking up dangerous people as it is about helping rehabilitate them.

He said in many cases the jail is the first opportunity for them to turn their lives around, but that is only possible if the right resources are made available.

Regardless of which option the county board chooses to pursue, the clock is ticking.

Last fall the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced a sunset authorization effective Sept. 30, 2021.

With the jail sunset on the horizon, the county now has less than three years to complete the project before the existing jail will shutter its doors for good.

While the board will discuss the recommendation at its Feb. 26, meeting, it may not render a decision until later this spring.

According to county administrator Ken Fritz, due to the length and complexity of the report, a county board working session already has been scheduled for March 12 to give commissioners an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the issue.

The proposed facility would house up to 130 inmates for as long as a year and would include houses for juveniles and inmates with mental illnesses.