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Oil Patch prisoners spill into Crookston

Phill Greer, executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, tours the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston. Tri-County estimates making about $1 million this year housing inmates from other jurisdictions.JOHN SETNNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD1 / 3
A cell like this one at the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston can bring Tri-County Community Corrections as much as $76 per day for housing Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates. Tri-County projects making $350,000 to $400.000 this year by housing federal prisioners.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FPRKS HERALD2 / 3
Tri-County Community Corrections Executive Director Phill Greer notes that his organization is is the only one in the state of Minnesota that runs a jail that is not associated with a sheriff's offfice.JOHN STENNES/ GRAND FORKS HERALD3 / 3

CROOKSTON — The oil boom in western North Dakota is producing a new kind of bonanza in the Red River Valley — income for regional jails.

Though federal officials have tried to keep people arrested in North Dakota in North Dakota jails, even jails in neighboring Minnesota have benefited.

Last fall, the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston began housing its first federal inmates, according to Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell, who chairs the regional organization that oversees the jail.

The jail can handle as many as 200 inmates, but in the past few years averaged only about 120, forcing officials to get contracts for inmates outside the region and earn more income.

“It’s always been the thought that we would be receptive to taking in inmates from elsewhere,” Strandell said. “The (U.S. Marshals Service) wasn’t on the table back then. That came about with the oil activity.”

The number of federal inmates jailed in North Dakota has grown by 50 percent in the past year from an average of 125 to 130 to 185 to 195, according to Dan Orr, chief deputy for the Marshals Service’s North Dakota District office in Fargo.

Yet, there are few places to house them, especially in the Oil Patch, where the torrid pace of population growth is resulting in corresponding increases in crime rates and arrests.

“We’ve seen an increase in multi-defendant drug cases, where several people are indicted in drug conspiracy crimes,” Orr said. “More and more of those cases are popping up in the Oil Patch. We anticipate that continuing.”

Jail income

His office has tried to keep most of its defendants in North Dakota — especially those involved in immigration cases — at jails in the state’s four largest cities, which are also home to federal courthouses. In Grand Forks, the Grand Forks County jail has averaged 44 to 49 federal inmates a day since 2008. In Fargo, the Cass County Jail, which has contracted for 10 beds daily to the Marshals for several years, is quadrupling that number this year.

As jails in the larger cities fill up, the Marshals Service has had to extend its reach to smaller jails in places such as Devils Lake and Rugby, and, most recently, across the state line to Crookston.

In January, the Crookston jail, which serves the Minnesota counties of Norman, Polk and Red Lake, averaged 18.4 federal inmates a day, earning $38,000 from the federal government.

The jail also earned in January $48,000 from housing 23.5 inmates a day from other Minnesota counties and 5.8 from the state Department of Corrections.

At this pace, the jail stands to earn about $1 million this year from outside inmates, 35 to 40 percent of that from federal sources. That would be a good chunk of the $4 million annual budget of the Crookston jail.

Federal contracts for housing inmates, however, pay more than others.

While the state of Minnesota pays $55 a day to house an inmate and other Minnesota counties $52, the Federal Bureau of Prisons pays $76 and the Marshals $65.

Getting creative

To get the federal contract, Crookston jail officials had to be creative.

“We’re the only organization in the state of Minnesota that runs a jail that is not associated to a sheriff’s office,” said Phill Greer, executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, which runs the jail.

That means the agency does not employ armed law-enforcement officers. The Marshals Service, on the other hand, requires two sworn law-enforcement officers to transport inmates. 

To get past that hurdle, Tri-County negotiated an agreement with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department. Under the deal, Tri-County agreed to pay the salaries and benefits of two full-time transport deputies, who would be employed by the sheriff’s department. When they’re not transporting inmates, they are available to the sheriff’s office.

“We found that we could make that deal,” Greer said. “We can pay those two full-time salaries and benefits and provide an overtime pool and still make a good profit and revenues.”

Serving others

While Tri-County negotiated the Marshals Service contract, it also looked to other nearby counties for revenue sources.

The Crookston jail regularly has housed inmates in the past from Clay and Mahnomen counties in Minnesota. However, the numbers have not been consistent, according to Strandell.

Tri-County recently signed a contract with Clay County that guarantees 12 beds a day for a fixed monthly fee starting in June. Extra inmates would require extra fees.

In the meantime, Tri-County is negotiating a contract for Mahnomen County to become a full partner possibly by 2015, according to Greer. That could reduce the annual contributions each county now makes to the jail.

Strandell said the goal is to maintain an inmate population of 180 to 200. The average daily population between 2009 and 2012 was about 120.

“The idea is to get some stability, so we don’t have the range of highs and lows,” Strandell said. “And we’re trying to be good neighbors, too. They’re dealing with space problems. It’s much more efficient.”

With the likelihood of the oil boom in western North Dakota lasting for another 20 or 30 years, or even longer, officials here don’t anticipate the need for jail beds decreasing anytime soon.

“The concern with paying customers and contracts is what happens when we get to a point where our local needs exceed our capacity,” Greer said. “That will become the time where we have to end relationships with the paying customers. Hopefully, we never get there, but reality indicates that someday we will.”