Ramsey County begins transfer of inmates as debate over jail funding intensifies

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher announces his office's new body-camera policy on Friday during a press conference. Deputies must activate camera upon receiving a call or coming upon something that may result in a call for service.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Inmates started leaving the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center on Tuesday following a state Department of Corrections order to reduce the number of people held in the St. Paul facility.

Ramsey County has one of the biggest jails in the state, built to hold 500 people securely, just east of Interstate 35E near downtown St. Paul.

The state order has intensified the ongoing battle over money and public safety policy between the seven-member, DFL-controlled county board and Sheriff Bob Fletcher, among the more conservative elected officials in the Twin Cities.

The jail has recently had about 380 people behind bars — but not without difficulties. The county's public health department, which handles medical care at the jail, has been sounding the alarm for months about care of inmates there, including a woman who reportedly waited an hour or more to be seen by a doctor for a suspected stroke.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Officials sent a letter to Fletcher and eventually a state complaint from the county was filed about its own jail.

“We felt that we had to report ourselves,” said commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, during a discussion about the jail by the county board Tuesday morning. “That isn't something we do out of anything other than the concern about the welfare of the people in our adult detention center. That was it. There is no gain for us, other than the safety of those individuals.”

The order reduces the jail’s operational capacity to 324 inmates. The Department of Corrections issued a similar capacity reduction order to Beltrami County on Jan. 27. Both orders highlight a series of concerns about conditions in the state’s jails.

The FBI and a federal grand jury have probed the 2018 death of a Beltrami County inmate. The owner of a medical provider that served 40 jails in Minnesota and around the Midwest lost his medical license in connection with that death. A KARE 11 investigation found at least three other preventable jail deaths linked to inadequate care around the state.

Ramsey County has also paid out repeated civil settlements for incidents in its jail, including a $500,000 settlement with Terrell Wilson, who said jailers beat him in 2016.

The most recent complaints came to a head last week, when the state's corrections agency, which regulates local jails, ordered Ramsey County to reconcile its jail population with the staff available to work there and clear inmates out if necessary.

Commissioners said Tuesday they believe they'd funded the jail adequately, but that the sheriff’s office wasn’t taking the problems seriously.

Fletcher has sued the board in the past over funding for his agency, clashed with local officials over his popular livestreamed police patrols and jockeyed with the DFL political establishment in St. Paul and its suburbs.

Fletcher said his agency isn't neglecting inmates.

“No one is more concerned about their safety than I am,” Fletcher told MPR News.

He said female inmates were being transferred to the county workhouse, usually meant for people post-conviction. Other inmates are to be transferred in coming days to other jails in the Twin Cities metro and across the state, at a cost to Ramsey County.

The sheriff said that his jail was understaffed by nearly 20 people. He said he warned the county, but it didn't provide for the surge in inmates since COVID-19 has waned.

“Yeah, we don't control who comes into jail. It's primarily the St. Paul Police Department that brings us prisoners and other police agencies,” Fletcher said. “But the fact is that St. Paul had a record homicide rate last year, some elected officials will try to run away from that figure, or ignore it, but it's the driving factor.”

He also said that he would ask for another 18 jail personnel by Oct. 1, and appeal the state order if his recruiting efforts paid off and he could staff up the jail.

But county commissioner Rafael Ortega said the safety issues, and a $2 million overrun in the sheriff's budget for 2022 were simply a bridge too far and the county — which levies taxes — needed to rein in the sheriff.

“You know, we've identified the problems over and over again,” Ortega said. “The real question is, what are we going to do, besides meeting with the sheriff. We're responsible. We're the adults in the room."

In the meantime, the inmate transfers are expected to be complete on Wednesday, leaving the jail in compliance with state orders.

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Other news, some inmates at the Ramsey County Jail are on their way to new jails today following an emergency order from state inspectors that requires Sheriff Bob Fletcher to cut the number of people held at the facility. The move follows a monthslong battle between Fletcher and the county board over the budget for the facility and findings that the county was failing to keep inmates safe. Tim Nelson's been following the story. He joins us right now.

Hey, Tim.

TIM NELSON: Hi, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: So as you know, we talked with the Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell yesterday here on the program. But for those of-- for folks who are catching up, what is going on at the Ramsey County Jail?

TIM NELSON: Well, Ramsey County is one of the biggest jails in the state. It was built 20 years ago in Saint Paul, 500-bed facility for people awaiting criminal trial in Ramsey County courts and for people arrested and awaiting trial or a transfer to a mental health facility or even to a state prison. The issue isn't the number of beds there. It's the number of people who work there.

Inmates can't be left unattended for their own safety, for the safety of others, medical emergencies, a whole host of reasons. The trouble is there aren't enough staff. And that means, in particular, there aren't enough to handle the transfers to medical facilities nearby, like Regions Hospital or the Healthpartners Specialty Center. That means people with serious medical conditions aren't getting timely treatment.

Staffing at the jail has been an issue for a long time. And Ramsey County Public Health and the County Board and the sheriff's office have been discussing it over weeks and months. But the county board recently decided that they needed to bring in the state for an inspection. That led to a review of jail operations and this order last Friday requiring the county to reduce its jail capacity to about 320 people with the staff they have on hand.

CATHY WURZER: Which is about, what, 60 inmates are finding other places to go, is that right?

TIM NELSON: Yeah, round about that. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: About that. OK. Sure. So, OK, what prompted the emergency order?

TIM NELSON: Well, there were a variety of medical situations that had come up. An inmate suffered a suspected stroke, a condition that requires quick intervention, had to wait an hour or more to be taken to a hospital. There's another inmate that had been in a car accident, and health providers said jail staff denied the inmate a medical screening.

Now by law, jailers are responsible for the people in their custody, so they have to care for them. And the county could be legally liable. They could get sued if they don't.

And this also comes on the heels of some high-profile cases that we've covered here at MPR, including the death of Beltrami County inmate Hardel Sherrell in 2018 due to an untreated medical condition. So state officials said this number-- it's 324 inmates-- that's the most people Ramsey County can take care of given the staffing they currently have. And that means the jail has to find somewhere else for the rest of these inmates to go.

CATHY WURZER: Sheriff Fletcher's long complained about the staffing shortage. How did it get this bad?

TIM NELSON: Well, part of it's the tight job market everywhere. Also, inmate counts are kept low during COVID. They're rebounding now. So there's this gap between staff and need. I talked to Sheriff Fletcher earlier this morning a little bit more about this.

BOB FLETCHER: We have a record number of homicide suspects that we're keeping. We have 48 people that are mentally ill that should probably be moved to other facilities that the state has failed to open. And we have another 28 that should be at the state. They haven't been sentenced, but they haven't been moved yet because they have local charges. So there's a variety of-- there's a mixture of reasons that the numbers are high.

TIM NELSON: The next of a long, long, decades-long political struggle between Bob Fletcher and the county board. They've battled each other in court repeatedly over budgets. And the county manager said today that the sheriff's office has exceeded its budget last year by more than $2 million. Fletcher's even sued the board in the past for not giving him enough money, and he's won a partial victory for some budget autonomy in the past.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I remember that. So what's next?

TIM NELSON: Well, as you said, they're cutting the number of people in the jail as of today. They're moving some inmates to the county workhouse, women mostly, others are being moved to jails elsewhere in the state, where Ramsey County is essentially renting bed space for the time being. Fletcher says he's going to also submit a supplemental budget request for 10 additional corrections officers, six more people to transfer inmates to medical care and other out-of-custody situations.

We'll see if he gets that, if the county board gives it to him. The county commissioners met today. They're very angry. They threatened to revoke some of the budget autonomy they provide the sheriff. They said they would consider bi-monthly audits of his spending, and they are going to start demanding regular written reports of what's going on at the jail.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Well, thank you, Tim Nelson. Appreciate the report.

TIM NELSON: You bet.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.