Special report: Inmate fluctuation out of county’s hands

The new Mower County jail averaged about 58 inmates per day in 2011, according to statistics from jail administrator Bob Roche.

A look inside an empty cell in the Mower County jail Thursday. -- Photo by Eric Johnson

From 2007 to 2009, the jail averaged between 52 and 55 inmates a day, with about a third to half of the inmates boarded at other jails.

The jail population spiked to well more than 60 a day in 2010, and the population reached 90 at the end of the year, according to Sheriff Terese Amazi.

While the new jail was built with 128 beds, the jail is staffed to house 88 inmates. If the number surpasses that, the Department of Corrections would require the county to jump from 31.6 employees to around 36.

It briefly looked like the county may have to add employees — as the new jail opened with more than 80 inmates — but settled to around 60, according to Amazi.

A 2003 study by KKE Architects Inc. and Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services Inc. projected two estimates for jail population in 2011: 58.4, based on statistics from 1990 to 2002, and 78.9, based only on statistics from 1996 to 2002.

The 1990-2002 estimate projected an inmate population of 73.1 in 2020, while the 1996-2002 estimate projected 110.4 inmates in 2020.

KKE and Voohris ultimately advised the board to plan for 120 inmates in 20 years.

Though the current number of inmates is lower than some expected, Amazi said, inmate populations are difficult, if not impossible to project since they largely rely on social and political factors.

In the past, counties were required to house short-term offenders — inmates with a felony prison sentence of 180 days or less. Before, they served time in county jails instead of state prisons.

That could change.

A bill was proposed last year to send short-term offenders back to county jails, which would create a substantial influx of inmates and costs. The bill did not pass.

Changes in drug crimes have also reduced the number of inmates. Amazi said methamphetamines isn’t as big of an issue as in the past, as the number of meth houses has been greatly reduced since it became more difficult to buy Sudafed, a meth ingredient.

“That really affects jail population as well,” she said.

The old jail was built in the 1960s with a capacity of 72 inmates, but as jail standards changed, the Department of Corrections reduced the jail’s capacity. Before it closed, the DOC cut the jail’s functional capacity to 32 inmates.

The new jail was built with the potential to expand, should DOC requirements and inmate needs change. County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said that would avoid the problems that handcuffed the county in the old facility.

“It’s a model for the future,” Oscarson said. “It was designed for the future, but we hope the future doesn’t go that direction.”

Amazi said she doesn’t expect an expansion to happen anytime soon — if ever.

Sill, Amazi and Oscarson said the future is hard to predict. While they don’t anticipate the need to expand, the possibility is important to note because the Legislature could change laws.

“We don’t know,” Amazi said.

Amazi said there is still a possibility of housing inmates from other counties.

Sheriffs have met to discuss ways to work together and potentially have specialized populations, meaning one or two jails could specialize in things like mental health populations.

However, Amazi said, there would be concerns about transportation if that happened.

She said discussions are still preliminary.

Compared to other counties

Mower County’s 2012 jail expenditures of $2.53 million were lower than Freeborn County’s $3.44 million. However, Freeborn raked in $2.1 million in revenue compared to Mower’s $44,000. That’s because Freeborn’s jail has a contract to house U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates, something Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said is very rare.

Mower had an average daily population of about 58, compared to Freeborn’s 109.

Rice County’s jail, which averaged 41 inmates a day, had total expenditures of $1.77 million and total revenues of $96,000.

Amazi said Mower County’s jail costs are similar to new-style jails.

“Any modern jail would have similar operating costs,” she said.

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