BEMIDJI — Constructing a new jail could be the best option for Beltrami County, according to the firm that ran the recent Jail Needs Assessment and Feasibility Study for the Beltrami County Jail.
Justice Planners LLC, who ran the study, gave its formal recommendation at a public hearing with the Beltrami County Board on Thursday, Sept. 22, during a presentation on several potential futures for the current jail.
The county originally issued a request for proposal in December 2021 for the study, after the jail had been facing challenges throughout the years, including severe housing capacity limitations, an inability for the jail to meet Department of Corrections jail design standards and an increase in needs for mental health and chemical dependency resources.
The jail, which opened in 1989, has undergone a couple of remodeling projects in the past. However, recent Minnesota DOC inspections revealed deteriorating conditions at the facility, noting the lack of storage space, a central control area, proper visitation spaces, staff training spaces, program spaces for inmates and more.
“I really think when you look at this holistically the best option would be building a new detention center,” said Alan Richardson, founder and president of Justice Planners.
Richardson and his team came up with this recommendation after carefully examining seven alternatives for the jail’s future, which included: doing nothing, reducing the jail to a 36-hour holding facility, renovating the jail, expanding the jail, building a new detention center, building a regional detention center or closing the jail entirely.
Each of these has its associated costs, some higher than others, that could result in an increase to the county’s annual tax levy. These costs range from a $374.7 million increase for building a new facility to a $535.6 million increase to renovate the existing jail.
More detailed information on the alternatives, their advantages, disadvantages and costs, can be found on the county’s webpage dedicated to the jail project.
“That’s a lot of money for every one of these options,” Richardson said. “I encourage (the county board) not just to look at the dollar amounts, but to look at the impact on the staff, the inmates and recidivism.”
Along with the lower total cost that building a new facility would entail, Richardson explained that designing a new building would also provide the county with an opportunity to examine how it wants to operate a detention center and what its priorities are.
“You’d have the opportunity to say ‘This is how we really want to operate, now let’s build a facility to accommodate that,’” Richardson said.
Several county commissioners expressed support for the option to build a new detention center, citing both Richardson’s points and the lower impact on the tax levy.
“The most logical decision is to go with a new facility, it’s a lot better for everyone, our staff, our inmates, everybody,” District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig said. “It’s also not as onerous of a tax, I’m in favor of that.”
Other commissioners support both the idea of building new and some of the other options presented in the study.
“I’m still in between the expansion and building new,” District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner said. “This isn’t easy. I don’t know if anybody likes jails, but it is something we have to provide to have a safe community.”
The commissioners all concurred that building a regional detention center was no longer realistic since it would require partnerships with other nearby counties that haven’t expressed interest in the idea.
“There aren’t any partners that want to be a part of a regional site,” said District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson, “it just doesn’t make sense.”
Alongside the commissioners’ opinions, members of the public were also welcome to comment on the project during the hearing.
One community member, John Henningsgaard, shared his thoughts with the board, noting that the projections for the jail’s population that were used for the project showed a never-ending increase.
“Ever-increasing incarceration is not inevitable, and in many ways the size of the jail reflects inversely the quality of our society,” Henningsgaard said. “I ask that you do everything in your power to minimize the growth of the population in our jail.”
Henningsgaard emphasized the importance of working toward reducing incarceration and decreasing the racial disparities found within the criminal justice system, encouraging the board to keep these things in mind when considering the future of the jail.
“We’re all here because we’re doing our best to improve our community,” Henningsgaard said. “My intention is to ask you to consider justice.”
The importance of public input was frequently highlighted by county officials, who recently extended the period for public comment to Oct. 31.
To help facilitate this, the county board will be holding two meetings in October that will allow members of the community to share their thoughts.
The first will be a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Oct. 13, and the second will be a public hearing held during the regular county board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
More information and an online survey can be found on the county’s website. All of these options will provide vital public input for the county board on how best to proceed.
“We’re still going to be welcoming public comment,” Sumner shared. “It’s really important that we get as much public feedback as possible.”
The final decision on the county jail project is expected on Nov. 15.