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Polk County copes with jail overcrowding

CROOKSTON -- Susan Mills and Jack Schmalenberg walk carefully through the building construction zone, sidestepping power cords and pallets of construction materials, dodging a steady stream of construction workers.

CROOKSTON -- Susan Mills and Jack Schmalenberg walk carefully through the building construction zone, sidestepping power cords and pallets of construction materials, dodging a steady stream of construction workers.

The Northwest Regional Corrections Center executive director and the Polk County coordinator are examining construction progress on the new $25 million regional jail and Polk County Justice Center.

The new facility will expand the jail's inmate capacity from about 80 to 210. Scheduled to open in January 2008, it now looks like it could be ready a few weeks early.

Still, that date can't arrive soon enough for Mills or her staff at the present constantly overcrowded 32-bed Northwest Corrections maximum-security facility.

"We've had only two or three days in the last two to three years when we've held at 32 inmates," she said, noting the inmate count often is 37 or 38, sometimes even 43 or 44.


"We still have people sleeping on the floor," she said. "And it's our only maximum-security facility," she said.

On an average day, Northwest has about 80 inmates, with 30 to 40 held in the 32-bed maximum-security facility. Another 30 are held in a minimum-security building that was built in 1911.

Another 15 to 20 inmates a day are being housed in jails in other counties -- some as far as 200 miles away -- because there's no room in Crookston.

Overcrowding everywhere

Other county or regional jails are running out of room, too. A recent report indicated that 43 Minnesota counties -- just less than half -- either are building or considering new jails.

Besides its own inmates, Northwest Regional Corrections Center also houses an average of 11 state prisoners, called "short-timers."

In 2003, the Minnesota Legislature authorized the transferring of short-timers -- people serving state prison terms for offenses such as felony drunk driving -- to county and regional jails for the final year of their sentences.

The reason was to relieve overcrowding conditions in Minnesota's state prison system.


County and regional jails lose money on the deal.

Tri-County Community Corrections -- the operating agency formed in 1975 to oversee the jail -- pays an average of $50 to $55 a day to house inmates in other counties, while it receives an average of $10 a day from the state to hold the short-timers.

In Fiscal Year 2005, that created a budgetary shortfall of nearly $400,000 for Tri-County, according to Mills. In Fiscal 2006, the difference will be close to $300,000.

Besides the monetary struggles, transferring inmates to and from other jails is an administrative nightmare. Corrections officials are constantly seeking space in other jails for inmates.

"That's one of the things that's very difficult for the general public to see," Mills said.

It also means sheriff's deputies continually have to transfer inmates from the jails in which they are staying to court appearances in Crookston or other courts in the region.

"That process, in and of itself, is very staff intensive," she said. "Not only do they have extra work, but we still have people sleeping on the floor, and that can be very stressful for everybody."

World of difference


About three years ago, a committee was formed to look at the possibility of building a new jail. That committee was comprised of county and corrections officials and community leaders from Polk, Norman and Red Lake counties.

At the time, Polk County also was considering replacing an old office building.

After some study, the committee decided the best route would be to combine a new jail with a justice center.

"It made sense to put the courts and associated functions out there, in the same building as the jail," Schmalenberg said.

Besides consolidating the jail and court activities, the plan would alleviate the transporting of prisoners from jail to court, which now is located in the county courthouse.

Ultimately, architects designed a $25 million, 155,000-square-foot building -- $17.5 million for the jail and $7.5 million for the justice center.

To finance the jail portion of the project, Polk County would sell bonds, which would be repaid through lease payments made to Polk County by Tri-County Corrections. Polk County already had available funds to finance the attached justice center.

The committee launched a marketing campaign, traveling to communities throughout Polk, Norman and Red Lake counties, trying to convince residents of the need for such a facility.


"If you build a new library or a new school, it becomes an important part of the community that people feel good about," Mills said at the time. "But you don't feel very good about having to build bigger jails."

The effort succeeded.

By the fall of 2005, the project was approved, and construction began in December 2005.

Security, convenience

When it is completed, the Polk County Justice Center will include administrative offices of Minnesota's Ninth Judicial District, the Polk County Attorney's office, public defenders, Tri-County Probation Department and administrative offices of Tri-County Community Corrections.

Courtrooms will be located on the second floor, with most administrative offices on the main floor.

The entire facility will be equipped with interactive video, a design that reduces prisoner movement.

Public defenders will be able to communicate with prisoners through video conferencing. Inmates will be able to make court appearances without leaving their cellblocks.


Likewise, visitors will use interactive video to meet with inmates, through no-contact visitations.

While the justice center will have windows, the correctional center will not. Skylights will provide outside light.

All booking will occur at what is called central control, which monitors all activity, including that in six holding cells, three of which will be equipped with medical equipment.

The facility will include:

  •  30 secure cells (60 beds with double bunking) for general population male prisoners.
  •  30 minimum-security cells (60 beds) for male prisoners serving time under the Work Release Program. A separate entrance allows these prisoners to enter and exit without going through the main facility.

It also could be converted for lock-down purposes, to be used for general population prisoners.

  •  30 maximum-medium-minimum cells (60 beds) for female prisoners. It will include a dividing wall that would allow half of it to house male prisoners.
  •  36 cells (assigned as needed for single and/or double bunking) for males with special management and/or maximum-security requirements).

Each cellblock or pod will include a day room, with game tables, television and other accommodations.
Tri-County Corrections also provides a variety of education programs for inmates, including full-time adult education and a high-school-equivalency program.

Officials also plan to offer chemical dependency programs.

The building is designed to add two additional correctional center pods, as well as another courtroom in the justice center.


That's not too far-fetched. At present prison growth trends, the new Northwest Regional Corrections Center could be filled to capacity a decade after it opens.

"It's going to be a beautiful facility," Schmalenberg said. "Let's just hope we don't have to expand for quite some time."

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