VALLEY CITY, N.D. — In a residential neighborhood right across the street from Valley City High School stands the 111-year-old Barnes County Jail.
The aging building doesn’t really look like a jail. Only a sign and some fencing topped with spiral razor wire give away its purpose.
The jail, deemed by state officials as having myriad problems including inadequate security, remains in operation but only under threat from the state to build a new facility or face closure.
Compounding the pressure is a potential lawsuit from the family of an inmate who died last year after a DUI arrest. Less than three months later, another inmate killed himself. That inmate had attempted suicide at the jail several weeks earlier.
The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) said Barnes County has repeatedly failed to comply with dozens of state jail standards, such as requirements for checking on inmates and suicide prevention.
During one inspection in November 2017, state officials found the jail in violation of 45 state standards. More than a year later, the jail had not fully remedied those problems.
Due to the severity of these violations, the jail was reclassified in December 2018 from a Grade 1 to Grade 3 facility. This means the jail can only hold inmates for four days rather than up to a year.
Reclassification is a rare move for the state. In fact, this is the only time it’s happened in at least seven years, according to the DOCR.
The number of inmate deaths at the jail also stands out.
The DOCR doesn’t track data on inmate deaths. But through public records requests, The Forum found that at least four inmates died in North Dakota jails in 2018, two of which were Barnes County Jail inmates.
The DOCR describes the jail as having a "dysfunctional layout which lacks security needs," according to a recent assessment of the facility. The agency also said the jail's extent of noncompliance "presents a danger to the health and safety of inmates, staff, law enforcement, visitors, and the public."
'A history of noncompliance'
Issues with the jail have been noted for decades.
Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClaflin said he’s heard from former county commissioners that discussions about renovating or replacing the jail date back to the 1960s. The only major renovations of the building took place more than 40 years ago in 1977.
An independent study in 2002 found that the jail could go another five to 10 years maximum before it would have to be replaced, the sheriff said.
McClaflin said there were efforts in 2006 to build a new jail, but funding fell through. That year McClaflin lost the election for sheriff. It also happened to be when a jail officer, Moe Gibbs, was charged with murdering a Valley City State University student.
During Gibbs’ trial, it was discovered that he sexually assaulted five female inmates.
Fargo attorney Cash Aaland said he represented two of those inmates. Now he represents the family of 72-year-old Warren Lindvold.
Lindvold died after Valley City police arrested him on suspicion of drunken driving July 15. Video from a squad car camera shows Lindvold expressing extreme pain that he continued to complain about in the county jail. He had a prior neck injury, and a family friend previously told The Forum that Lindvold had a progressive arthritis condition he'd dealt with since high school.
A DOCR report said Lindvold was taken to Mercy Hospital in Valley City for neck pain after he was booked into the jail. Once he was taken back to the jail, Lindvold repeatedly asked for help from jail staff. A Valley City police report said jail staff "waited approximately three hours before attending to Lindvold, who was found on the floor of his cell."
Later that morning, he was taken to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo where he died six days later. An autopsy report showed that a broken neck caused his death, which was investigated by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the DOCR.
A Cass County prosecutor who reviewed the case did not find evidence to support criminal charges against the officers involved. But Aaland said untrained officers used "excessive force" and that the jail was understaffed.
Three days before Lindvold's arrest, during an unannounced visit July 12, a state official noted there were only two jail officers instead of the three needed. It was also discovered that a couple of employees had quit and one had switched to part-time, “so they are short staffed again,” the DOCR report said. It noted the jail needed to hire a minimum of 2.5 full-time equivalents.
Valley City Police Chief Phil Hatcher said in an email to The Forum that the police officers involved in Lindvold's arrest received no discipline or additional training. McClaflin said his office also issued no discipline for jail staff in connection with Lindvold’s death.
Lindvold's family is preparing to potentially sue authorities involved unless a settlement in the case is reached, Aaland said.
“The problem that resulted in Warren Lindvold’s death wasn't so much the facility, but more so the noncompliance of training,” Aaland said, adding that if the jail continues to run short staffed and without training, a new facility will not solve all its problems.
"It’s a history of noncompliance,” he said. “There’s real world consequences to these failures. People have died."
'Not much progress'
About 11 weeks after Lindvold's death, 25-year-old Lonny Bradley killed himself at the Barnes County Jail on Oct. 5. He was being held on suspicion of domestic violence terrorizing, a felony.
He had attempted suicide in the jail Sept. 17 and consequently was taken to a hospital for treatment before returning to the jail 10 days later.
McClaflin said Bradley was not on increased observation at the time of his death. "We had no reason to put him on any watch. He never made any comments to anybody,” the sheriff said.
However, the opposite was reported in a Nov. 28 statement from former Barnes County State's Attorney Carl Martineck. In reviewing Bradley's death, Martineck wrote: "Bradley had been under increased observation at the time of his death."
Martineck, who’s now the city attorney for Valley City, said he received that information from former jail administrator Julie Forsman. Forsman resigned in the wake of the jail’s reclassification, McClaflin said. Phone messages left for Forsman were not returned.
McClaflin and the DOCR would not comment on the discrepancy of whether or not Bradley was under increased observation at the time of his death.
Standard monitoring of inmates is every hour, but increased observation is every 15 minutes, said Martineck, whose review shows staff didn’t follow the guideline for increased observation.
Staff checked on Bradley at 7:11 p.m. Oct. 5, according to Martineck's review. When visiting his cell 22 minutes later, staff did not see Bradley. When they returned three minutes later, they found him hanging in the bathroom.
No jail officers were disciplined in connection with Bradley’s suicide, McClaflin said.
Several months before the suicide, a DOCR inspection noted that the jail’s layout makes for "lengthy" observation of inmates due to stairwells and cells on different floors spread out through the building. Staff are not able to directly supervise inmates from one location, McClaflin said, and this is an ongoing concern of the DOCR.
The jail did not have a suicide prevention plan, and staff was not trained to recognize signs of mental illness or to respond to medical emergencies, according to a Nov. 6, 2017, inspection. It was also noted that rounds to check on inmates in their cells were “infrequent and undocumented.”
The next month during another visit, the DOCR found that staff continued to fail to “go into the tiers and make contact with each inmate” and “keep no records of rounds completed.” Inmates and staff “both claim rounds are not thorough or often enough,” according to the DOCR.
Notably, the report said “staff was unable to articulate good practices related to suicide prevention and response to high risk inmates.”
A follow-up visit on Jan. 3, 2018, found that “not much progress has been made.” Weeks later, on Jan. 30, 2018, another review of the jail showed that staff continually failed to adequately supervise inmates.
“It appears all staff may not be walking into the tiers to visually check on each individual as required,” the review stated. “This is a life safety issue and must be corrected immediately.”
'It may be tomorrow'
Records obtained by The Forum show inspections from 2012 to 2016, and one as recently as June 8, 2017, found the jail to be in compliance with standards.
But the state has since made it clear to McClaflin that, in his words, "If we don’t build a new one, they will come in and close this one at some point in time."
"It may be tomorrow, they said, too. You never know," he added.
Lance Anderson, DOCR’s director of facility inspections, said the agency prefers to work with jails to reach compliance before ordering a partial or full closure.
Issues at the Barnes County Jail are "severe enough for the facility to be reclassified, which is significant," he said. “However, we are continuing to work with the jail to come up to standards.”
Originally built as the sheriff’s living quarters in 1908, the jail does not meet the needs of inmates and staff today, McClaflin said.
The jail's main entrance is a screen door followed by a mudroom that leads to a lobby. A call-for-service bell sits on the front desk, and posters for bail bond companies litter the walls.
Paint chips fall from original steam pipes and collect on the floor. There's worn carpet, soiled and damaged ceiling tile, poor lighting and ventilation, according to state inspections.
Inmate cells open and close with a 1901-patented pulley system, while many jails now have digital systems for locking and unlocking cells.
Inmates booked into the jail are often coming down from drug highs and dealing with mental health issues. But during the booking process, there's not a secure holding cell for inmates. The space used for taking mugshots and receiving new inmates is shared with the administrative office, which is too small to house McClaflin's desk. His office is a mile away.
The dire straits of the jail make it difficult to retain staff. When trained staff leave, it means new hires must undergo weeks of training.
"What bothers me is the staff turnover. They want us to keep them trained, but it’d be nice to have a nice, clean, bigger, safer environment. My hats off to the ones who work here," McClaflin said. "I feel sorry for the staff getting caught in the middle. I’m not saying they didn’t make mistakes, but any other jail you get time to correct it. Here we don’t."
Because of the jail’s reclassification, county taxpayers are fronting the cost of transporting inmates to a nearby jail for stays longer than four days. It’s unclear how much this is costing, but the sheriff anticipates it will have a significant impact on his office’s budget.
Barnes County has formed a jail committee to lay out a plan and timeline for building a new jail, but the details are still being sorted out.
Bill Carlblom, a Barnes County commissioner on the jail committee, said the county is working to identify a site for the new jail and meeting with architects. He said the new jail won’t be at the existing site given the proximity to the high school.
The hope is to build a new jail with capacity for 40 inmates, a 10-bed increase from the existing facility. Carlblom said he’d like to have a joint law enforcement center with a dispatch center, county jail and city police station, making it a "one-stop shop.”
A new jail is estimated to cost between $6 million and $11 million, and Carlblom said it could take at least two years for completion once a plan is solidified.
Carlblom said funding for a new jail would likely come from a bond approved by voters. The jail houses inmates from surrounding counties, so Carlblom indicated that those counties could help cover the cost.