The jail is closing. The clock is ticking. Winona County grapples with what to do next …

Tobias Mann – Winona Daily News
Oct. 26, 2018

Winona County has an important choice to make. The jail is slated to close, and the county is in a position to build on its successes or risk consequences that will reverberate throughout the community.

One thing is for certain: The clock is ticking.

In early September, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced it would close the facility in fall 2021 after decades of noncompliance and substandard inspections.

The county now has just less than three years to decide what it wants to do with the jail, a facility that could cost anywhere from $8 million to $30 million to rebuild.

At a county-led jail summit Thursday, members of law enforcement, jail staff and civic leaders discussed the future of the imperiled facility.

Jail program coordinator David Glithero, Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said, Winona County Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller, social worker Darrell Warnke, Jail Administrator Steve Buswell and Sheriff Ron Ganrude made up the six-member panel.

Throughout the evening the group discussed a range of topics, including the history of the facility, its shortcomings and the services the jail should provide.

According to Buswell, since the jail was constructed in 1977, its role in society has changed dramatically. It’s no longer just a big concrete holding pen for people who pose a threat to the public.

“The jail used to be about retribution,” he said. “You sent someone to jail and they were going to change. It didn’t work.”

Buswell described the jail as the first place many offenders are confronted with a choice and given an opportunity to turn their lives around.

For each inmate, that choice is different. For those fighting drug addiction, it often takes the form of a 12-step program on a path to drug court. For others, it might be the diagnosis and treatment of a mental health disorder. Whatever the case, Buswell said the jail isn’t just a place to hold dangerous people — it’s often the first stop in helping offenders become productive members of society.

However, as the jail stands today, the lack of recreational and meeting space hampers its ability to meet this goal.

According to Warnke that lack of recreation space leaves inmates without a safe or reliable place to bleed off pent-up aggression.

Buswell said this “dead time,” can quickly become dangerous for inmates and the staff working in the jail.

The inability to provide programs and services has a ripple effect on the community, Said pointed out, asking, “Do we want people coming to our jail to be better or worse when they get out?”

While the panel discussed a range of topics including the potential cost and scope of building a new facility, one issue kept coming to the forefront: What happens if the county does nothing?

Mueller and Ganrude both addressed the consequences closing the jail could have on the community.

The both identified transportation as a key issue.

Mueller said if the county allowed the jail to close, law enforcement would be responsible for transporting arrestees to neighboring facilities — which Ganrude said could not only prove costly but could be a safety risk for officers.

Ganrude added that this would also make the county the largest in the state not to have a jail.

The option, Mueller said, is just “kicking the can down the road.”

Transportation has already become an issue for the county, with an average of 15 Winona County inmates being held the Wabasha and Houston county jails on any given day.

That problem only became worse when in 2016 the DOC downgraded the jail from a Class 3 facility to a Class 2 facility, meaning inmates could be held for no more than 90 days. Inmates held longer have to be transported to a neighboring jail, further increasing the cost to the county.

The county also lost the ability to hold juveniles when the DOC downgraded the facility, requiring children to be transported to another facility — sometimes thousands of miles away.

Ganrude said in one case an 11-year-old boy had to be transported to Indiana because the jail couldn’t hold him and there were no neighboring facilities with space.

He said transporting offenders has the potential to cause staffing problems for the departments as well.

“Police have such a high volume of calls the Sheriff’s Department is constantly assisting during the night shift,” Ganrude said, adding that if the jail were closed transportation times would leave both departments short-staffed the majority of the time.

Buswell said renovating the existing jail is possible but would be costly.

The jail isn’t ADA compliant, doesn’t meet fire code and bringing the building into DOC compliance would require knocking out 18-inch-thick reinforced concrete walls.

Ganrude said if cost were no object, he would like to see a new jail built adjacent to the Law Enforcement Center with space for a mental health facility and a juvenile holding area next door.

Warnke agreed that that mental health space is important and has the potential to reduce the recidivism rate and keep people out of the jail, ultimately saving the county money.

Mueller said a large enough jail also has the potential to generate revenue for the county by allowing the DOC to hold inmates there.

The Jail Advisory Committee is in the process of assessing the county’s needs and is expected to present its findings along with several options to the Winona County Board in early 2019.

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