Qualifying non-violent inmates released on bond as Grand Forks jail attempts to reduce population

In preparation for a possible COVID-19 outbreak, jail staff and other judicial workers are working to reduce the jail's inmate population as much as possible as quickly as possible in order to allow for quarantining and isolation if necessary. On the first day the new bond schedule took effect, 17 people were released from the jail.

The Grand Forks County Correctional Center, photographed Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Unlike other businesses and buildings throughout the community, Grand Forks County Correctional Center administrator Bret Burkholder said he doesn't have the option of closing his doors.

And considering that close, confined quarters is the nature of a jail, inmate populations are among the most vulnerable to an outbreak of COVID-19 — and the more full the jail is, the more difficult it is to quarantine or isolate unwell inmates, Burkholder said.

Northeast Central District Presiding Judge Donald Hager amended the bond schedule on Friday, March 20, allowing most nonviolent offenders to be released on personal recognizance bonds — essentially, Burkholder explained, nonviolent inmates who are determined to meet certain criteria sign a "promise" to attend their next court date and are released. The adjusted bond schedule will apply to any new inmates who are booked into the jail as well.

On Friday, March 20, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., 17 inmates were released from the jail. Though Burkholder said not every one of those people were necessarily released due to the amended bond schedule, 17 is a higher number than they see released on an average day.

The jail's functional capacity is 180, and maximum capacity is 250. The jail's population Friday afternoon was 184 — the first time the jail population has been that low in quite a while, Burkholder said.


"It's been a long time," he said. "I didn't know that number existed."

The amended bond schedule comes at the end of a week underscored by uncertainty throughout the community, which saw unprecedented closures and changes throughout the local and state criminal justice systems. On Friday, March 13, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation temporarily suspended all new intakes while a new COVID-19 screening protocol was researched and implemented. Friday morning, March 20, an executive order from the governor extended the suspension at least through April 6.

GFCCC is presently housing 22 inmates who have been sentenced to the state penitentiary.

On Thursday, March 19, the Northeast Central Judicial District, which includes Grand Forks, also postponed all non-emergency court dates at least until May. Prior to the bond schedule being amended, Burkholder said it was unclear how this would impact the jail's population.

But Friday, he said the dropping jail population would afford the jail some relief, which could become critical in the case of an outbreak in the facility.

"It will give me the opportunity, if I need to isolate someone or quarantine someone, I might have the ability to create an area where we can readily do that," Burkholder said. "When our numbers are 220 and so forth, it's virtually impossible to do a really good job at quarantining and isolating. So getting it down to 184, that's definitely going to help if we get into that situation."

Other steps have been taken in an attempt to prevent a COVID-19 spread in the jail, Burkholder said. On-site visitation has been suspended, though remote visitation is still available for a cost of 25 cents per minute, reduced from 39 cents per minute. The 24/7 alcohol program has also been adjusted so that, instead of people in the program coming to the jail twice a day to take a breath test for alcohol consumption, their alcohol levels will be monitored with an ankle bracelet.

Burkholder said a new shipment of additional ankle bracelets is expected to arrive Monday. But with jails across the country facing the same pandemic, the same population issues and many finding similar solutions in some form of electronic home monitoring, Burkholder said those ankle bracelets are becoming harder to get. That hasn't posed a problem for the program in Grand Forks yet, but if shortages continue, it could become a more pressing issue, he said.


In the meantime, he said he's continuing to work closely with law enforcement, court staff and the State's Attorney's Office to keep the jail population and jail staff safe. With no end of the pandemic yet in sight, he said they're hunkering down for a long haul.

"I don't know what's gonna happen between now and tomorrow morning," Burkholder said. "I might be dealing potentially with infected people. Who knows?"

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