Stearns County weighs options as jail overflows

ST. CLOUD – At the Stearns County jail, everything except the roof is obsolete.

In the downtown St. Cloud building, there aren't enough beds for inmates, there isn't enough flexible space for staff or inmates and it's difficult to replace parts for mechanical and security systems, according to Mike Williams, county administrator.

A 2011 study concluded the law enforcement center, which houses the jail, was nearing the end of its useful life. At the time, the county board approved a partial remodel to extend the building's life.

Now, as the inmate population continues to swell above capacity, the board is mulling whether to renovate the downtown space or build new at a different site.

"The jail is really the main driver in this whole thing but the whole law enforcement center, jail and court building are worn out. They've lived out their life expectancy," Williams said.

The jail has an operational capacity of 135 beds but the average daily population is 160 inmates — with peaks of 180 to 200 inmates.

"That causes us to be overflowing to the point where we have to house people out of the county, which is costly and inefficient," Williams said. "We just don't have anywhere to put them."

The law enforcement center was built in 1986 a block northwest of the courthouse. It houses the jail, dispatch and sheriff's office administration.

South of the law enforcement building is the courts facility building, built in 1991, that houses additional courtrooms. Henry Pittner, an architect with Minneapolis-based BKV Group, told the county board in March that building also requires a "full gut rehabilitation."

Renovating the courts facility building is estimated at about $4 million; replacement is estimated at about $7 million.

Renovating the law enforcement center is estimated at about $40 million. That could be advantageous because it keeps the jail near the courthouse and county attorney's office, although housing inmates during a major remodel could pose problems, Williams said.

Building a new building at a different site, estimated at about $46 million, would allow architects to design a more flexible space.

But a building too far away from downtown would create inefficiencies such as forcing St. Cloud police — the agency that brings in about 72% of inmates — to travel farther to book inmates.

Mike Griebel, who has been providing design consulting services for criminal justice systems for more than four decades, told the county board the jail has been above capacity for at least seven years.

"Your average daily population for jail housing exceeds your capacity and that has continued to put pressure and emphasis on reducing your length of stay and trying to manage the population of both male and female (inmates) and all other classifications just to keep control of this," Griebel said. Projections show the jail will require an operational capacity of nearly 300 beds by 2045.

"Compounding this a little bit is the fact that there has been increased focus on other needs for those people held in your detention facility," Griebel said. "This includes serious mental illness and behavioral health issues."

Griebel said the jail also requires flexibility for high-risk inmates, as well as space for rehabilitation and educational programming.

"It just comes down to space, really," Williams said. "The jail is inspected routinely by the state and they've been telling us that we need more space (and) updated space for several years now."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299