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New Thief River Falls jail will have triple the capacity

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Construction is off to a good start on the Pennington County Regional Justice Center here, and law and justice officials already are looking forward to the day when the jail, courts and probation offices finally will be under...

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Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia shows the parking ramp leading to the basement for the new Pennington County Regional Justice Center in Thief River Falls, Minn. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Joshua Komer/ Grand Forks Herald)

THIEF RIVER FALLS - Construction is off to a good start on the Pennington County Regional Justice Center here, and law and justice officials already are looking forward to the day when the jail, courts and probation offices finally will be under one roof.

The $18 million facility is expected to open by mid-2018 and will include a 94-bed jail along with heightened, modern security. The new building will be located roughly at the corner of Main Avenue South and West First Street and will encompass the existing Thief River Falls Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff's Department.

"We have a lot of great things going on in Thief River Falls. We're a growing community, and we need to grow with it," Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia said. "Just like everything else, the bad grows with the good. It's just all part of life."

Kuznia said the county has outgrown its current jail, which originally was built in 1977 to house up to 15 inmates. It later was remodeled with double bunking to house up to 30, but he said that still isn't always enough room.

Kuznia said up to 20 inmates sometimes have to be shipped out to other regional jails, and that can quickly turn into a logistics nightmare when court is in session three days a week.

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"Depending on who was full at the time we had to ship people, we might be sending deputies in three different directions to get them and then turn around and bring them back because we have no room," he said.

With three times the number of beds, the new jail has enough space with some wiggle room.

"You never want to have a jail completely full. A good-running jail runs about 80 percent full occupancy," Kuznia said. "And the reason for that is we have room to move prisoners if some misbehave. If you have a full jail, you can't move people around if there's issues. And I guarantee you most of the people we have in our facility have issues. That's why they're here."

The layout

The first level of the Regional Justice Center will house the county attorney's office, a probation office and a county boardroom. An investigative wing will make room for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Drug Task Force and also offices for police and sheriff's investigations.

On the second level will be two courtrooms, separate chambers for each judge and office space for their staff. Court administration also will be on the second floor.

The new jail is designed with two levels with stacked cell blocks, stairs and open space in between. There will be a separate area for work-release/sentence-to-serve inmates who may come and go during the day.

Five other pods will include one section for female inmates, one for maximum-security inmates and three for medium-security inmates. A central post stands out front and can control everything for that section - doors, water, lights, everything except the outside doors of the facility.

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The all-in-one facility addresses an important safety issue, said Pennington County Commissioner Darryl Tveitbakk.

"We're walking prisoners across the street for their court in full view of the public," he said. "We have to march them chain-gang style across the street.

"Sometimes these inmates have people who plain don't like them for whatever reason ... so they park themselves in the street and wait for them to come out so they can taunt them or worse. That's not a healthy situation."

Another safety feature in the new center is an elevator shaft that runs between the two courtrooms. It is connected to the jail and includes an inmate holding/waiting area on the court level with access to either courtroom.

Inmate programs

Kuznia said current jail conditions had squeezed out a lot of the extra room for inmate exercise space and other programming. Some of that will be coming back.

"We're going to be able to do a lot more programming and more things with the inmates," he said. "And that's so vitally important to keep them busy back there so they're just not confined to the cell all day. That's where you have the problems with inmates.

"Whatever we can do to curb the recidivism rate, we have to do it because it's expensive to keep inmates confined."

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