County jail not meeting state standards

(story and slideshow) Chisago County Jail Administrator Brandon Thyen pointed out numerous deficiencies of the Chisago County Jail during a tour last week. If the county doesn’t address some of those shortfalls, he said the Minnesota Department of Corrections could take beds away from the jail.

By Derrick Knutson —

Walk into the Chisago County Jail in Center City and one thing is readily apparent: it’s behind the times.

The jail, built in 1978, is deficient in numerous areas, according to Chisago County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Brandon Thyen.

Thyen, the jail’s administrator, said if the county doesn’t address those deficiencies in some way, the Minnesota Department of Corrections could take beds from the facility, which would lead to the county incurring costs to transport and house inmates in other jails.

What to do about the jail has been a point of contention between the Chisago County Board of Commissioners and taxpayers for years – at one point a $40-plus million new jail was proposed near Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center – but the funding for that project never came to fruition.

More recently, an $18 million addition to the current jail has been proposed, which is keeping the DOC from taking beds from the Chisago County Jail, for now.

A long list of deficiencies 

Thyen pointed out a litany of defects and age-weakened areas of the jail during a tour last week.

The DOC told Chisago County the jail’s programming and recreation areas are insufficient.

The jail’s programming area consists of a small library, not much bigger than a medium-sized bedroom, and the recreation area is one 13.5 by 18-foot concrete room with a basketball hoop.

Officer Daniel Klein said those spaces get pretty crowded, especially when people come in from outside the jail to help the inmate population.

“We have over 50 volunteers who come into the jail,” he said. “We also have support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous (that use those areas).”

Other insufficiencies are easy to spot around every corner – jail staff are packed into closet-sized offices, some inmates are funneled into dormitory-style cells with numerous bunks, the library and visiting room sometimes have to be used as temporary cells because the jail doesn’t have enough 24-hour holding areas and one cell on an outer-ring wall of the building can’t be used when its cold outside because the jail’s heating system doesn’t work well enough to keep it sufficiently warm.

When the jail was built, up to 21 inmates could stay in the facility.

After an expansion in 1993, that amount went up to 53. A variance approved by the DOC in 2004 increased that number to 67.

Inmates are usually held up to a year in the jail, unless they’re waiting for the outcome of a trial, in which case they could be held longer.

Thyen stressed DOC inmate classification standards usually do not allow the jail to hold the max of 67. Some inmates end up in the minimum-security area, others are placed in medium security and a small percentage head into the maximum-security cells.

The DOC does not allow maximum-security inmates to be held in medium or minimum-security areas, or vice versa, so the jail is normally full at about 40 inmates.

Dangerous situations

Thyen said the layout of the jail has lead to some dangerous situations for staff. The jail’s intake area, where inmates get photographed, fingerprinted and booked, is too small to handle the volume of people moving through the jail daily. Any inmates who come in and out of the jail have to go through the area, which passes by the jail’s kitchen.

Thyen said there is the possibility of an inmate getting away from guards and jetting into the kitchen, where the inmate could possibly get a hold of sharp cooking utensils.

In the fingerprinting room, jailers sit mere feet away from new arrivals, who are sometimes drunk or high on various types of drugs.

Thyen said scuffles between jailers and inmates have happened in that area, and its tough for other jail staff to see what’s going on in that room if they’re not in there with the officer doing the fingerprinting.

Other areas of the jail are difficult for officers to monitor as well because of the design of the building, which isn’t the case in newer facilities where the “pod” design is implemented.

“By DOC standard, you can have up to 60 inmates in a direct supervision pod with one corrections officer,” Thyen said. “The corrections officer stays in that pod with them and controls the pod.”

Officer Brian Ramthun, a jailer at the facility, said an updated jail would benefit staff and inmates, most of which are non-violent.

“Too much of the public thinks that they’re scumbags and they don’t need a new jail, when, in fact, most of the people are pretty normal,” he said. “It’s about their safety and it’s about our safety, too.”

Klein added, “The fighters are probably only about 10 percent of our people. Eighty to 90 percent of the people are just average, everyday people who made a mistake. You have to remember they’re coming into this situation, too.”

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