In 2012, Le Sueur County, Minnesota faced a dilemma: It was tasked with either replacing the county jail, dating from 1912, with one that met state Department of Corrections standards – at considerable cost – or downgrading it to a 90-day holding facility and wasting tax dollars on court-day transportation.
County Administrator Darrell Pettis explained the problem:
“A lot of our detainees are waiting to have their cases adjudicated, which means they have been arrested but are unable to make bail, so they’re just waiting for their court dates to be set.” The problem, he says, is that as a result of staffing issues in the court system, between 30 and 50 percent of detainees have to wait longer than 90 days. So if the facility were to be downgraded, they would have to await trial in neighboring county jails, which, depending on available space, could be up to 45 minutes away.
As a consequence, they would need to be transported, back and forth, for their court appearances in the imposing 1896 stone courthouse with its red-tiled turrets, which dominates the public square in the county seat of Le Sueur.
That’s an expensive procedure according to Pettis, citing amounts spent by neighboring counties facing similar issues as in excess of half a million dollars annually. “Not a good use of taxpayer dollars,” he says emphatically, making the point that doing something was by far the better option than doing nothing. “It made a lot more sense to have a brick and mortar building that would serve our needs, rather than spend tax dollars on transportation costs.”
As a result of these deliberations, serious planning for the new Justice Center, incorporating a jail, drug court and sheriff’s office, began in 2015.
When we spoke with Pettis in mid-September, the new medium-security facility had opened just two weeks before. It is a huge improvement, with 93,000 square feet over three floors, and capable of housing 80 inmates in 40 double cells, each with toilet, sink, and shower.
Although the 1912 jail with original iron bars hadn’t been used after the 1980s extension was added, the apartment at the front entrance to the 1912 building, where the jail-keeper had lived with his young family – his wife worked as the jail’s cook – was still in use as far-from-adequate office space for the sheriff’s department.
“Our 1980s extension had a linear design,” Pettis says. “Think of a long hallway, and as you walk down the hallway there were small day rooms, and then two or three cells off those and a small common area, so very inefficient for staff. Our staff has to do a bed check every half hour, so they had to walk down this long corridor and then open doors into the small day rooms to look into the individual cells.”
He describes the new facility, designed by architects from the BKV Group in Minneapolis, which has expertise in designing such facilities, as podular. “Think of an old-time wagon wheel with spokes and a hub. So the hub is our central control with cameras and the day rooms are kind of the spokes or pieces of the pie. So now one central control can see into all of the pods and the cells are on the backsides of those pods,” Pettis explains.
“It’s much more efficient as far as observing inmates goes, as there is just a short corridor to walk down to each individual cell. We have increased security by being able to see our prisoners and also helping our staff do it much more efficiently. We are required to see each prisoner every 30 minutes and we take that seriously, so we’re doing it every 25 minutes. Prison suicides do happen, and we don’t want to allow that.”
Prison suicides are indeed a real concern, since 60 percent or more of the inmates in Le Sueur County have either mental health or chemical dependency issues, or both. “We haven’t had the opioid crisis that a lot of the U.S. has, but we do have problems with methamphetamine.
“It’s a concern that our local jails have become the last resort for housing for people in trouble, many of whom probably shouldn’t even be there. A lot of it is attributable to mental health and lack of dedicated facilities – a shortage of mental health beds. Most of our state mental health institutions have been closed and people are put into group homes and into society. But when they don’t take their medications, they become homeless, commit petty crimes, and end up in the judicial system and in the county jails.
“So mental health and chemical dependency issues – that is a big part of our incarcerated people, along with personal crimes – criminal sex acts and conduct. Those are not easy cases and there are a lot of tentacles with them and it takes a lot to adjudicate them.”
Improvements for women
He also notes that there’s been an increase in the number of female offenders in recent years. “Years ago, it was five percent, but it’s continued to rise every year, so now it’s at twenty percent or a little less.” As a result, two of the pods have been designated for women. Although they might not be filled with female prisoners from Le Sueur County, where the population is only 28,000, they do give the new detention center the option to accommodate women who can’t be housed in neighboring counties’ facilities because they lack a designated area, a requirement of the Department of Corrections.
Also in the secure area is a library, a classroom where volunteers offer GED (General Educational Development) preparatory classes, and a workout area with exercise equipment, which is made available to inmates as a reward for good behavior
But it’s not only the detainees who now have suitable accommodation. The sheriff’s department, once housed in the living room and cramped bedrooms of the jail-keeper’s home, now occupies a sleek, modern office, along with its own health and fitness room.
Since it’s a judicial building, containing courtrooms, Pettis says, “the finishes are much more than a standard office building, with tiled floors and lots of wood and natural local stone. We have judges and lawyers coming in and out of here all the time, as well as the Center’s staff. Included among the staff are those working in the Community Connections Program, which helps inmates connect with services from mental health providers and social services if they qualify, and many of them do.”
To ensure that the specific needs of the facility were met in a way that made sense to the people working there, regular meetings were held throughout the design and construction process between detention center staff, the architects, and the construction company managers from Adolphson & Peterson, also out of Minneapolis.
“I haven’t been as involved with the meetings as my staff, but I do try to attend two or three a month and they were very open to our needs,” Pettis says. In the interests of transparency, a photographic record of the construction process was provided to him, which he published regularly in bi-weekly newsletters. In total there were some 50 newsletters, between January 2018 and August 2019, that kept the county’s residents informed about progress.
Pettis’ main role in the process was financing, which he explained was accomplished through bond-financing.
The financing story
“We as a county entity can sell tax-exempt municipal bonds that have no state or federal tax. As a citizen of Minnesota, people don’t have to pay state tax on them, but they are also federally tax-exempt so we sell those on the market in New York and people bid on our debt and their bid price determines what our interest rate will be, so they are around three percent for twenty years. Then we put a property tax levy on, and we use the levy to pay off the principal and interest on those bonds. We did five different bond sales at different times, staged out at different rates,” Pettis shares.
“The first building lasted 105 years and we built this hoping it will last at least 50 years if not longer. We looked at the details and sized it properly, so we could deal with growth and allow for additional growth and more deputies. We built it out of good quality products, we had great workmanship, and we think we looked out for the county’s interests. It was expensive and we understand that, but it was the right thing to do, and most of our residents were supportive and are impressed,” he says.
“It’s hard to spend public money, but when you do it, you have to do it right – and I think we did it right.”