A surprise decision from the state's Department of Corrections could put a major crimp in the Rice County budget come November. That's when it will consider the county's main jail a 90-day facility.
In a report received late last month, DOC officials found that the facility doesn't have adequate recreational space and programming for inmates.
That put Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn and Chief Deputy Jesse Thomas in front of county commissioners Tuesday, asking for a jail study, the first step in deciding how to solve its space problem.
A 90-day facility means that no prisoner can be held in the main jail for more than 90 days. Anyone needing to be jailed for longer than that would have to be held at another facility, likely in Steele or Le Sueur County. Dunn estimated that could cost $500,000 annually.
While the county has a jail annex on Hwy. 60, it's designed for minimum security prisoners and isn't set up to accommodate the higher security and special needs inmates the main jail on Third Street NW houses.
Dunn said state guidelines are unclear on how much rec space is required. The main jail, which was built in 1975 and houses up to 36 prisoners, has two 10-foot by 14-foot spaces that are used for recreation.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson was unable to provide specifics on the requirements by press time.
All Rice County prisoners get an hour a day for recreation, and except for those in solitary confinement, they're able to move about in their dorms during the remainder of the day. Dunn says inmates are only locked in their cells during the evening or if they're being disciplined.
But it's not just housing Rice County prisoners outside the county that could bust the 2020 budget, the cost to transport prisoners to and from an out-of-county facility and the personnel costs that go along with them also need to be factored in.
According to the sheriff, any time a Rice County inmate in jail in another county needs to be brought to court in Faribault or taken to an appointment, a Rice County deputy is required to doing the driving. That means paying for a deputy and Sheriff's Office vehicle to travel from Faribault to Owatonna or Le Center, waiting to check that person in or out of jail and coming back to Faribault.
The county now has nine part-time staff and four vehicles to transport inmates. Dunn expects that that number will need to go higher come November.
"There are days (now) when all four of those vehicles are out doing transports," he said.
Using other deputies isn't the answer, he said, as that would reduce the number of officers on patrol or in the courthouse.
Dunn said he was surprised that the department didn't give Rice County more notice of its decision. Last year, he said, the DOC report noted that certain issues could lead to a 90-day designation, but nothing signaling a change in 2019.
Dunn believes a new DOC commissioner may have led to the decision. Paul Schnell, who was appointed commissioner shortly after Gov. Tim Walz's January inauguration has been a strong advocate for improved programming and options for the state's incarcerated men and women.
In March, Schnell toured the Minnesota Department of Corrections-Faribault, pointing to the importance of educational programs and other opportunities for inmates.
“These programs change the trajectory of families,” Schnell said in March. “These men will go home and talk about the value of the diploma they received. We talked to a man earlier. We talked about the fact that on that day when he graduated, on that cap and gown, that he sent that picture home, he felt a sense of pride… I think when he goes home and talks to his own children, and he talked to his own daughter, that education will have a fundamentally different value and this is helpful for not only his daughter, but it’s helpful for him.”
Dunn said the county has maintained the jail throughout its nearly 44-year life. But it's expanded into every closet and storage space available.
"We can't keep putting Band-Aids on an old building," he said.
A jail study, which needs to be approved by the county board, will give the county options for expanding and projected costs. Even if the board OKs a new jail, Dunn expects it would take three year before it complete.
"I'm not asking for a new facility yet," he said. "I want to see what will work. A new jail will come at significant cost."
Le Sueur County's new Justice Center, which includes a 40-bed jail as well as office space for the sheriff's department and corrections staffers, cost over $30 million. It's set to be completed this fall.
County Administrator Sara Folsted is also thinking about costs.
"…The important thing from my perspective going forward is that we do our due diligence in the study to evaluate our current operational gaps and evaluate all options so the board can make a decision that meets the needs of the population served in a way that is financially responsible," she said in an email to the Daily News.