Officials float options to improve Clay County Jail’s overcrowding
By Adrian Glass-Moore
Facing mounting scrutiny from the state Department of Corrections, leaders recently discussed a possible sales tax to pay for a new $30 million facility during a joint meeting of the Moorhead City Council and Clay County Board.
Local sales taxes in Minnesota have to be approved by the state Legislature after being passed by local voters.
The county has started saving up money to pay for the new building by introducing a wind energy tax and reallocating debt payments, which could raise $1.185 million yearly by 2019. But that will not be enough.
A property tax increase is another option, County Administrator Brian Berg said.
If plans come together, construction could begin in 2018 or 2019, but there’s nothing specific yet. “We’re working on it,” county board Chairman Kevin Campbell said.
Officials said plans for a new jail have been discussed fruitlessly for more than a decade.
The jail’s problems are harder to ignore now that only 45 of 60 beds in its secure facility are usable. And 21 of those 45 beds don’t comply with state rules, but are being allowed by the DOC, at least for now.
Overcrowding at times has forced Clay County to house its inmates in other jails, such as the Tri County Community Corrections in Polk County, at a projected cost of $487,000 this year.
The Clay County Jail, which includes a secure facility and a minimum secure annex, receives 85 to 90 inmates a day but only has the capacity for 70 to 75. Fifteen to 20 are sent out of county at a daily cost of about $55 per inmate.
Two employees have been hired to manage the logistics of inmates moving in and out of the jail, said Julie Savat, the jail’s administrator.
The added expense of sending inmates to other counties is not the only problem. Housing inmates out of county makes it difficult for them to meet with family, attorneys, social services and clergy. Also, other counties’ jails are becoming increasingly crowded, Savat said.
Savat inspected a cluster of cells at the jail Wednesday in the northwest block, emptied in order to show a reporter. A window on the north side let in natural light — a DOC requirement.
There are now two beds in what “used to be a four man cell,” she explained. DOC restrictions on cell size, known as 2911 rules, forced the jail to reduce the number of inmates per cell.
Savat pointed to cracks in the floor and walls that she said were so deteriorated at one time that “you could kick through.”
“The plumbing was shot,” Savat also recalled. Some of the plumbing was fixed in 2011, but it continues to be a problem with unsanitary consequences.
If inmates intentionally flood their cells or a pipe breaks, the offices in the basement are at risk. Savat said carpet had to be replaced downstairs because of flooding.
In the law enforcement center, which shares the building with the jail, “there’s constant maintenance,” Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said at last week’s city-county meeting. He reported finding burnt wiring underneath the carpets that had to be replaced, adding that the burning smell was not immediately noticed because of the facility’s “pungent” bathrooms.
The jail has an outdoor space that has been closed because it isn’t secure. A single room downstairs for programs has a few tables, books and a television.
Ebinger said the possibility of the DOC cracking down on the jail was real. “The longer we wait, the more that may come as a big surprise,” he told elected officials, calling the building “inadequate for its current use.”
The jail operated 66 beds until Jan. 1, when the DOC shut down six for noncompliance. Three DOC jail inspections – in 2006, 2008 and 2010 – cite problems at the jail including overcrowding and cells that are too small.
“The facility is running over operational capacity much of the time. … The county needs to look at boarding out,” a 2008 DOC report stated. “Running above operational capacity makes it hard to classify and maintain the facility.”
A 2010 DOC report stated that the northwest, northeast and southwest cell blocks did not meet the size standards.
“For many years, the Department of Correction has allowed some cells to be operational that do not meet the square footage requirements of Chapter 2911 standards,” the report stated. “The approval was based on Clay County moving forward with plans to resolve these space issues. It appears the county is no longer moving forward with plans toward resolution so the Department no longer can allow the use of these cells.”
The DOC’s Chapter 2911 rules generally require jails to provide 70 square feet per inmate.
Reports also noted the “problematic” plumbing and “poor condition” of showers.
Berg said recent fiscal steps and discussions about a new jail are buying time. “We’re making gradual steps,” he said in an interview. “We don’t feel it’s a crisis mode.”
But he acknowledged that if the DOC stops allowing the non-compliant beds, it would cripple the jail.
At the city-county meeting, officials agreed to secure a funding source first before drawing up specific plans.
“There’s going to need to be public dialogue,” Campbell said, especially if taxes are involved.
He said the DOC’s patience is being tested.
“They’re very concerned,” Campbell said. With parts of the jail non-compliant, a lawsuit against the county could drag in the DOC, too. The concern is that “not only will Clay County get sued, but so will DOC,” he said.
Savat didn’t have a problem explaining why the jail has problems.
“The facility is old.”