Minn. counties struggle to pay for empty jail cells

Doug Ely
Caledonia Houston County Sheriff Doug Ely stands in a ward of the newly built jail in Caledonia. The facility is large enough to hold more than 80 prisoners, but it stays nearly empty a large part of the time.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

In the last decade, a boom in jail construction and dropping crime rates have left thousands of jail cells empty around Minnesota. The combination has left many counties in the state trying to figure out how to make money on this unused space.

Each day, about a third of Minnesota's jail beds remain empty. As of Nov. 30, 3,001 of the state's 9,853 total beds were unoccupied, according to the state's Department of Corrections.

In the last five years alone, 25 county jails have either been built or remodeled across Minnesota, according to the DOC. The jail construction boom happened in part because of state requirements that counties upgrade law enforcement facilities.

This excess jail space means a loss in revenue for counties trying to pay for new jail construction. That's because counties pay each other to house inmates when their own facilities are at capacity.

While some counties have talked about closing their jails, there's no easy solution to the issue of empty space, said Jeff Spartz, former Hennepin County commissioner and president of the Minnesota Association of Counties.

Mark Olson
Caledonia lead jailer Mark Olson describes the size of the jail cells at the newly built facility in Caledonia. The Houston County jail is large enough to hold more than 80 prisoners, but it stays nearly empty a large part of the time.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

"There's a reluctance to close a jail even if you aren't operating at its most efficient point," he said. "Things could change in a couple years and then we've got a large expense to open it up again, and we're subject to a lot of criticism."

Regional cooperation is key, Spartz said. But even that's tricky, because counties are likely to disagree on the logistics needed to work cooperatively.

"Think about it," he said. "In a smaller county seat, how important it can be for the welfare of that community to have the jail there. It represents lots of relatively high-paying jobs. I've been in a couple of county seats where if the county courthouse were to disappear and be moved into the middle of the next county, I think the town would die."

The state's newest county jail in Houston County in southeastern Minnesota is among those struggling to fill its facility. It opened in late October at a price tag of $17 million. But the debate over whether to build that new jail has long divided residents of Houston County.

Doug Ely inherited the jail issue when he was elected sheriff in 2007.

"As a rural farming community, people are like, 'Did we really need that?'" he said. "We've heard, 'Man, it's huge.' We've heard 'Well, the upstairs is big, why isn't the Sheriff's Office very big?' I hate to say anything. It started long before I became sheriff. It's a long time in the making."

Sheila Kelleher
Caledonia jailer Sheila Kelleher brings a lunch to one of the six inmates being held at the newly built jail in Caledonia. The Houston County facility is large enough to hold more than 80 prisoners, but it stays nearly empty a large part of the time.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

The facility is state-of-the-art. It has an industrial-sized kitchen, commercial-grade washers and dryers, a recreation area, flat-screen TVs and video monitors.

The jail has enough beds for 84 inmates, but during a recent visit, only six spots were occupied. That's less than half the jail's average daily population, which ranges from 15 to 20. The building in Caledonia also houses the county courthouse, the county attorney's office and the sheriff's office.

"I don't believe it's built for today and tomorrow or the next decade," Ely said. "It's definitely built for the future."

When it comes to jail space, forecasting the future is not always easy. Houston County officials started talking about building a new jail about 15 years ago, when analysts projected rising crime rates. But in the last five years, Ely said violent crime has dropped about 20 percent. And criminals who are convicted for less serious crimes are getting out faster, he said.

That means fewer prisoners spending time in jail.

"Our county along with a few of our neighboring counties have sat together, we've tried to discuss different ways we can maybe shut down one of our pods, one of our wings, and maybe house the prisoners and vice versa," Ely said. "One of the big issues is that every county is its own entity. So, they may use different products than we use, and they may have a contract with somebody else that they use that we don't."

Houston County jail
This section of the new jail in Caledonia has room for more than 30 inmates. The Houston County facility is large enough to hold more than 80 prisoners, but it stays nearly empty a large part of the time.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

About 100 miles north of Houston County, Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin coordinated a series of meetings this year with officials of the 11 other southeastern Minnesota counties to talk about how they might work together.

"The one thing that's never happened, and obviously the horse has left the barn, is that nobody decided to really get together and talk about regionalization," McNurlin said. "And that's what we're doing now." Among the ideas, McNurlin said the regional group is considering merging dispatch centers to make it easier to keep up with changing technology.

But he says those conversations are just now starting to happen with jails, as counties struggle to figure out what to do with all the empty space in their facilities.

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