The Houston County Commission has been grappling with whether to keep the Houston County jail open or to close it over the past year. The conversation got serious when Winona County announced that they would not be renewing their contract with Houston County, who currently house Winona County’s inmates. The contract was scheduled to end at the end of September 2023, but Houston County is still housing Winona County inmates because their new jail has not been completed.
In 2022 revenue from the Winona County contract was $302,000 and in 2023 the county budgeted it at $246,375. From January to September 2023, Winona County has paid Houston County $254,497. Total revenue is calculated as a cost per day per inmate over the course of one year.
Take a step back and look at the history of the jail. Information published on the Houston County website, “The original historic jail which is still standing was built in 1875 to house both male and female prisoners.” According to information on Wikipedia.org construction on the new justice center began in 2010 and was completed in October 2011. The current jail opened on October 31, 2011. The justice center was built next to the historic courthouse and the original Houston County jail in the South Marshall Street complex just two blocks from Caledonia’s downtown district. According to a 2011 article by Klein McCarthy Architects on Sah-archipedia.org, the justice center was built in “response to increased inmate population and technology and correctional regulations.”
The Houston County Justice Center was a $14.5 million dollar investment, is 65,000 square feet and has 82 beds. Source: New Justice Center Replaces Oldest Minnesota Jail, correctionalnews.com, November 30, 2011. Inmate amenities include video visitation, recreation room, programming, music and television, canteen, full-service kitchen, laundry, and phone service.
Houston County Finance Director Carol Lapham explained that the county still owes $8,230,000 in principal and $1,240,250 in interest. The last payment is due late 2030 or early 2031.
At the beginning of 2023, a committee was formed to discuss the future of the jail. Commissioners serving on the committee include Robert (Bob) Burn and Bob Schuldt. The committee held their first meeting in April.
The committee has been looking into other revenue opportunities or ways to cut costs. Options include having just a holding cell, combining dispatch with another county like Fillmore or Winona, and changing the meal service. The commissioners approved a new meal contract in October.
The proposed 2024 jail budget obtained from Lapham includes numbers depending on whether the jail is closed or kept open and compares those numbers to previous years. If the jail remains open, projected revenues are $12,500, with total expenses of $1,750,930. If the jail is closed, revenue is budget at zero and total expenditures at $1,387,858.
Lapham pointed out that the jailers and dispatchers are combined position. It was emphasized at the November 7 Houston County Commission meeting that the jail’s budget is included in the county’s preliminary 2024 budget. The county will set the levy at the last commission meeting of the year. At the November 7 commission meeting Commissioner Burns stated that from his perspective he does not expect any changes to the jail’s budget.
At the August 8, 2023, commission meeting, Commissioner Schuldt mentioned that the jail is currently operating with the minimum number of staff possible. Commissioner Johnson added that he did not see the jail population growing any time soon and currently there are only around four or less Houston County inmates in the jail at any given time. Commissioner Schuldt added that the county has a responsibility to have a holding space for people who are arrested in Houston County. If not at the Houston County Jail the county would need to contract with another county for a holding space. Schuldt said it would be the responsibility of the county to do the transport if another jail was used.
At the November 7 commission meeting, Administrator Dean Ott shared with the commissioners on the requirements and what it would take to house male and female juveniles temporarily for eight days. Ott adding, “Four juveniles have a potential of over $400,000.00 revenue in a year, which is more than we ever made.”
Sheriff Swedberg and Administrator Ott requested that the commissioners “approve budgeting the Houston Country jail for 2024.” Their request was approved with the caveat that the jail’s budget and operations would be reviewed at the July 2024 commission meeting.