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Crow Wing County Board: Jail bunks to be upgraded

Cells at the Crow Wing County Jail are set for a facelift after a budget amendment received approval from the county board Tuesday. Sheriff Todd Dahl and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson presented the request for an additional $163,761 for capit...

Cells at the Crow Wing County Jail are set for a facelift after a budget amendment received approval from the county board Tuesday.

Sheriff Todd Dahl and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson presented the request for an additional $163,761 for capital improvements to include ladders and safety rails for the upper bunk beds, new shelving units, painting and caulking maintenance.

Ladders and rails on the upper bunks will improve safety and prevent injuries sustained from getting into and out of the beds, Fosteson said. Inmates have sprained their ankles and some have rolled from the top bunk in their sleep, while those with mobility issues have difficulty hoisting themselves into the approximately 5-foot high bunks.

In an interview after the meeting, Fosteson said jail officials will make every effort to assign those with back or joint problems to lower bunks, particularly those whose problems are documented, although this sometimes is not possible.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $295,419. The county board previously approved $120,000 to be spent on steps to the upper bunks, although the scope of the project was expanded when jail officials learned the current shelving units are no longer recommended by the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).

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The shelving units, allowed when the county law enforcement center was built in 2007, are now considered a safety concern by the DOC. Fosteson said small hooks on the shelves used to hang towels to dry are the source of the concern, although he was unaware of specific incidents related to the hooks. The new units will include holes with rubber grommets for hanging things instead.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked whether building codes have changed since the jail's construction.

"This is not an old jail, so when we built it, we did it to code," Nystrom said. "Has the code changed?"

Fosteson said the things they're looking to improve do not represent code violations.

"As incidents happen around the state of Minnesota at different facilities, the DOC comes out with different parameters of how they want things done," Fosteson said.

Commissioner Paul Thiede said he is frustrated by the DOC's swift changes in what is considered acceptable for construction.

"You'd think it would last us more than eight years, but it hasn't," Thiede said. "Why don't they get on the stick and go harass the architects for awhile instead of harassing us after the fact? That would seem more fruitful and would save us all a little bit more money."

Dahl said he shared in Thiede's frustration. Fosteson said the DOC has convened a committee to look at building standards, although the potential positive outcomes would be seen by future facilities, not those already built.

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"We could simply ignore and they probably could not do anything about the fact that we said, 'No, we're not going to spend this money,'" Thiede said. "But then we would be exposed. They would join right in in coming down our throats if something happened."

Fosteson said not taking the DOC's recommendation to replace the shelving units would result in increased liability for the county.

Board inquires about other funding sources

Nystrom asked whether the costs could be shared by Cass County, which currently leases 40 beds in Crow Wing County's facility.

"We've never approached Cass County with anything as far as cost-sharing measures," Fosteson said. "It's usually been determined it's our building. They're simply leasing space from us."

Although sharing costs of capital improvements is not part of the agreement, Fosteson noted Cass County contributed $2 million to the construction of the jail.

Chairman Paul Koering asked Dahl whether any thought was being given to housing more DOC inmates to gain additional revenue, utilizing the 60 open beds not in use. Of six available housing units, five currently house inmates.

Dahl said he and Fosteson have discussed housing additional state inmates "at length" and have decided now is not the right time.

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"You can't just look at the outcome and say, 'OK, you're going to be guaranteed this money,'" Dahl said. "When you're dealing with the state, there's no guarantee. ... They're wishy washy and they go back and forth, and sometimes that's very frustrating for me to commit to that."

Dahl said he asked the county board to open the last housing unit previously and his request was denied.

Koering said he would be in favor of moving state inmates into the county jail, particularly in light of a promise from the state for a longer notice - increased from 30 days to six months - should they decide to pull out of a contract.

Nystrom asked whether there are counties successfully housing state inmates Crow Wing could look to for direction.

Dahl said there are, although there are also counties frustrated by their agreements.

"Dealing with some of the more violent prisoners and things like that, they're taking on more and more liability," Dahl said. "It looks really good when you have a (dollar) figure in front of you and say, 'OK, let's open it, it's as simple as that.' There's a lot more variables to it than just that last figure."

Dahl said despite the complexities involved, the issue isn't going anywhere.

"They're not going to build any more prisons," Dahl said.

Nystrom said with Cass County indicating they intend to build their own jail in the next five years, there will be even more open beds for the county to fill.

"It's very hard for us to sell our constituents that we built this jail ... and to see 25 percent of it's never been used, that's hard," Nystrom said.

Dahl said when the jail was built, the expectations were never to fill it immediately.

"It was built for the future," Dahl said. "We want everybody to know that there's more to this. ... There's huge liability issues, there's turnover rates, there's a lot of other issues that are involved that certainly I don't think you want brought up here."

Thiede said his hesitation to approve the request previously was related to the DOC's "lack of commitment."

"To me, that's what the board struggles with. We understand they're not going to guarantee us, and even if they do say they're going to guarantee us, they can get their budgets cut," Thiede said.

In the spirit of the direction the county board is moving with respect to property tax levy, Koering said he saw a DOC contract as a way to help the sheriff's office prevent budget increases.

Thiede asked how long DOC prisoners typically stay in the county jail and whether that affects their residency. Fosteson said they usually stay in the jail for about a year before they are transferred to a different facility and do not become residents of Crow Wing County if they stay longer.

"I wanted it to be a clear message that people hear, that these, no matter how long they stay, they're not going to become residents," Thiede said.

Dahl said he thinks it's important for the public to know how much revenue the jail brought in last year.

"When you're talking about a zero percent levy, I think that certainly (Fosteson's) staff deserves recognition," Dahl said.

Fosteson told the county board the jail brought in more than $600,000 in 2014.

The county board approved the budget amendment 4-0. Commissioner Doug Houge was not present Tuesday.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY BOARDCROW WING COUNTY JAIL
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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