A recent decision from the Minnesota Department of Corrections leaves the main Rice County Jail at risk of becoming a 90-day facility. The department argues that the change is necessary because of the dearth of recreational facilities and programming at the jail.
Bruce Lindner, programming coordinator for the Rice County Sheriff's Office, says that while he's doing his best to offer leisure and educational opportunities for the incarcerated, limited facilities make it difficult. Of particular importance are physical activities, which are essential to stress reduction but often difficult to fit around security requirements. A lack of proper physical fitness can lead to severe physical and mental health problems for prisoners.
“Anything that reduces the stress will help,” said Lindner. “These programs reduce their anxiety, and then they’re not as much of a burden to the correctional officer on duty.”
If the main jail, on Third Street NW, is designated as a 90-day facility, moderate- and maximum-security prisoners who need to be held for longer than 90 days would have to be moved to a neighboring county jail and shuttled back and forth for court dates and other appointments. Even though many inmates are released before hitting the 90-day mark, Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn estimated that this could mean extra expense to the county of around $500,000 per year.
Dunn said he was surprised that the decision to convert Rice County Jail to a 90-day facility was made so suddenly. At the time, the county was told that the transition would take place by November. The county requested and it appears likely to receive a waiver postponing the change until the end of 2020, while the county considers its options with a comprehensive jail study.
Just as important as recreation are educational advancement programs. An analysis by the RAND Corp. found that individuals who participate in any kind of educational program while in prison are 43% less likely to return to prison. The Trump Administration has made recidivism reduction programs a cornerstone of its criminal justice reform approach.
Lindner offers inmates an abundance of reading materials, adult basic education courses, computer classes and career planning assistance. The goal is to minimize the rate of recidivism by preparing inmates to live productive lives once they leave jail.
“If I can get those guys to get a decent job and hit the ground running, then we won’t see them again,” he said.
For both types of activities, the lack of space at Rice County's main jail is a major issue. Lindner while that many jails have dedicated, separate spaces for physical and educational activity, Rice County mail jails has just one relatively small room for all recreational activities. According to Jail Administrator Jake Marinenko, the jail’s recreational facilities have not been significantly improved or expanded since the Law Enforcement Center was completed in 1975.
The one small classroom available for recreational activities is often unavailable because it is required to accommodate not only group events but also one-on-one meetings, such as between an inmate and a lawyer or probation officer.
“We can’t use that room while there’s a professional visit going on, so everything we can we had planned we have to put on the back burner,” lamented Marinenko.
Even when the room is available, it struggles to accommodate the needs of the jail’s population. Physical fitness is a particularly difficult issue since inmates, especially those at Rice County’s main jail, spend their entire day cooped up inside. Lindner said the jail could greatly use a half-court gym to help prisoners maintain their overall health and deal with stress.
“(What we have), it’s not big like a gymnasium, it doesn’t have the same ventilation a gymnasium has and you can’t do the same activities,” Lindner said. “A half-court gym is a really nice thing to have. It enables them to burn off a lot of their anxiety, relieve a lot of stress.”
The room also struggles to accommodate academic activities. Lindner says the lack of space requires him to teach computing to students one on one. “I just don’t have room to fit anyone else in,” he said.
Having to split staff and volunteers between the two facilities adds to the challenge. Marinenko said that volunteer-based programs particularly struggle to adequately serve both facilities.
Earlier this month, the county Board of Commissioners authorized a jail study to explore expansion of the existing jails or construction of a new jail with more recreational space. Marinenko hopes that the results of the review will lead to more funding and facilities for the jail. Emphasizing that the large majority of inmates at the Rice County Jail will soon return to our community, he emphasized the importance of preserving inmates’ mental and physical health and preparing them to become productive members of society.
“We want a better product leaving that what we received,” Marinenko said. “With more space, more programming and education, I think we can accomplish that.”