Sheriff John DeGeorge and Commissioners Mitch Lenz and Marc Prestby attended last Wednesday’s Canton City Council meeting to discuss the need for a new county jail. This was the first stop in an informational tour DeGeorge hopes to complete in the next few months with other community organizations and government bodies.
DeGeorge explained that he and his predecessors have been working on this project, with the county commissioners and community members, since the late ‘90s. He explained a committee had been formed again in early 2020 to assess the jail and discuss possible solutions to some of the challenges and limitations the current jail is experiencing.
The group is made up of a broad spectrum of people, DeGeorge said. “We wanted people other than just those of us who were working in the system.
Their task is to consider four options for the future of the Fillmore County Jail and eliminate three of them. The four options would be to either outsource all of the inmate housing, to convert to a 72-hour booking and holding facility, to continue as a 90-day holding facility or to return to a 365-day holding facility.
DeGeorge said the final recommendation, which is hoped to be made this summer, will be based on careful analysis of data as well as initial and future operating costs and will be made with the input of justice system stakeholders, county officials and local citizens. The recommendation to the county will be to move forward with the implementation of the option that best meets the needs of Fillmore County and its residents.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) is working closely with the county on the status of the jail, but has advised local officials that the jail cannot continue to operate in its current facility. DeGeorge also noted the DOC directed Fillmore County to find a solution in a timely manner or it could face a shut down.
“We are trying to be proactive and are working closely with the DOC to find the right solution for Fillmore County,” the sheriff added.
DeGeorge is confident that as long as the county is committed to working towards a solution and is open to the DOC direction, the jail will be able to operate for the time being at its current status. However, he warned, that time period would have an expiration date if the county were to cease moving forward with the project.
The current status of the Fillmore County Jail is a 90-day holding facility. Capacity of the jail is officially 20 to 24 inmates, but because of rules about what category of inmates can be housed together, DeGeorge said that is more realistically 16.
According to DOC inspections, it has been determined that the jail has a lack of programming and recreational space and the lack of space to adequately separate inmates on their classifications. The building is also aged and deteriorating.
Among the deficits were deteriorating plumbing and electrical systems, so some repairs and temporary fixes were implemented. “But it as like putting a bandaid on a bullet hole,” DeGeorge said. “We are doing the best we can, but we all know these fixes are not long-term things.”
The jail was built in 1969 and is currently one of the oldest, if not the oldest jail in the state, DeGeorge noted. It was constructed using regulations that had been in place since 1911. Those same regulations were in place until 1978, he added.
In 2003, a jail study was performed and construction of a jail addition was considered by Fillmore County.
In September of 2017, the DOC reduced Fillmore County’s jail operations from a 365-day facility to a 90-day holding facility.
Another study in 2017 by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) cited several safety and security concerns. These included the the lack of suitable housing for inmates who need higher levels of security. DeGeorge stated this can pose operational, security and life-safety risks for staff and other inmates.
The jail was also constructed with cells arranged in a straight line with a corridor running down the middle. This causes a lack of visibility into the inmate housing, which also causes risks.
There are also manual locks in all the inmate areas, which can pose safety risks during events that require quick evacuation. There are also no fire sprinklers in the old portion of the building and none within the inmate areas. Finally, several inoperable cell doors were removed, which limits ways inmates can be separated.
The NIC also stated the jail is not in compliance with the Americans with Disability Act nor with the Minnesota Jail Standards. Many inmate areas do not meet basic adult jail facility space and functionality requirements and prohibit the provision of some required services.
The jail experiences functional limitations in regards to lack of space for inmate exercise, medical care, programming and even booking inmates.
DeGeorge pointed out that a storage room is used for medical treatment or for inmates to participate in online legal counsel or hearings. A small library space can be used for limited programming, but is not ideal.
Finally, DeGeorge also noted there are no temporary holding cells so the staff utilizes an old, inadequate space that is also used for many different things.
If Fillmore County does nothing to remedy the current jail limitations, DeGeorge said the Department of Corrections will not reinstate the 365-day operational status and it has indicated that if these issues are not resolved, the DOC could order the closure of the Fillmore County Jail.
“Fillmore County has gotten its use and its money out of this facility.” DeGeorge said. “It has a very well-run jail. Our jailers are people who live here and the people who are in our jail are also good people who messed up, made a mistake, who live here in our communities.”
He added that those who came before him made good decisions over the years and the jail has been managed very well. “But now, the state is saying, ‘Figure it out,’ so we are taking a proactive role in making sure we are not facing an end date, which will limit our options.”
Commissioner Lenz interjected that it is important to the county board that Fillmore County residents understand what they are doing and the reasons behind the actions.
“We do not want to be scrambling like Winona County, (where the DOC issued a closing date). It causes a lot of anxiety and rushed planning,” he said.
DeGeorge agreed, stating, “My hope is we do the right thing, make the best plan, so long after I’m gone, we have a jail that is right for the county. We have a good process in place to make that plan.”
The city council members and members of the community were given the opportunity to ask questions, which focused on operational costs, inmate transport challenges and funding for the new jail construction.
Operational costs would depend on the size of facility Fillmore County would choose to build. DeGeorge noted that if it were to be over 32 beds, the local staff would need to double, increasing the costs significantly.
He also noted jail occupancy varies greatly and some more analysis would need to be done regarding the need for beds.
Construction costs, he said, are a one-time expense, but one must plan for operational costs for the lifetime of the facility. DeGeorge reiterated this is the reason it is important to follow a good process to choose the right plan for Fillmore County and its taxpayers.
If the local jail was to close, inmates would have to be transported to another facility with an open bed. DeGeorge noted, if the arrested person was deemed a danger, two officers would be required to transport this person to the housing facility. If this arrest occurred in the evening, when there had been three officers on patrol, this quickly reduces the law-enforcement coverage within the county. He also shared that once the inmate is housed somewhere out of the county, that does not mean Fillmore County’s responsibility has ended. Officers from Fillmore County would also be needed to transport the inmate from the housing facility to any court dates or medical appointments and back again.
“Transport gets to be a complicated issue,” the Sheriff said. “It can quickly become more expensive than housing our own inmates.”
He also said many of the jail’s inmates are citizens of Fillmore County who may qualify for a work-release program. However, if their job is in Fillmore County, and they are being housed out of the county, these inmates would not likely be able to continue to go to work.
“We like having control of what happens with our inmates,” DeGeorge said. “We consider who they are and what they are in jail for. Not everyone is a hardened criminal and some of them are our own people.”
Canton City Clerk Brock Bergey asked if a new jail would be 100% the tax payer burden or if there would be funding options to alleviate that burden.
“There are likely several revenue options,” DeGeorge answered. He also pointed out that a current bond on the courthouse building will expire in 2022, which could free up funds to support another building project.
As for a possible site for the new jail, DeGeorge said the county is very fortunate to have many options, including the current site.
In conclusion, DeGeorge thanked the Canton council for hosting his first presentation and noted he would be visiting several other councils and community organizations in the near future. He and the commissioners are committed to being transparent in the process and making sure the taxpayers of Fillmore County have the needed information regarding the plan for a new jail.
“It’s either going to be our choice or it’s going to be made for us by the DOC,” he said. “Historically, that decision would be to close the jail.”