Committee explores jail optionsThe first thing you notice about the Douglas County Jail is the hallways.
By: Joe Albert, Staff Reporter, Alexandria Echo Press
The first thing you notice about the Douglas County Jail is the hallways.
They’re yellow, narrow, and full of turns. The hermetically sealed windows are but tiny slits in otherwise yellow walls. It’s the kind of place where you’re never quite sure where you are.
“We just walked into a cellblock with four felons,” Tim Nohre, jail sergeant, said during a tour Friday.
A thick, heavy door replaced the view of the hallway. Further inside the cellblock, Nohre peered through a small, Plexiglas window into each of the cells, a twice-hourly routine to check on each of the jail’s prisoners.
If it were up to him, the jail would have more Plexiglas, so jailers have a better field of view of the prisoners; and fewer twists and turns, places where an inmate could ambush an unsuspecting jailer.
A committee has been meeting in Alexandria since last fall to discuss those topics and more in the context of possibly building a new jail in the county.
“It’s in a planning and investigative stage,” said Commissioner Dan Olson, who sits on the Criminal Justice Development Committee. “No decisions have been made one way or the other.”
The committee represents a variety of interests, including the sheriff’s office, county board, City of Alexandria, downtown business owners, Osakis police and surrounding counties.
Some people on the commit-tee oppose a new jail and the question of need is the most contentious, Olson said.
The biggest question: Where is the need and what is the need?
The Douglas County Jail consists of two facilities: a main jail in the basement of the county courthouse and an annex in the upper level of the Law Enforcement Center.
The main jail, originally built in 1978, has the capability of housing 25 prisoners. The other two cells, which con-tain little more than concrete slabs with a thin mattress, are isolation rooms used for short stays – like alcohol-related arrests.
Heavy doors and Plexiglas windows enclose most of the main jail’s prisoners, who are either awaiting sentencing or have been sentenced for serious crimes. One cellblock, which houses four of the more dangerous prisoners, features yellow bars and seven-foot by 14-foot cells with a toilet and bed.
The jail annex is for sen-tenced prisoners, and those serving out the remainders of their terms. They’re mainly the low-risk offenders, some of whom leave jail each day to do work around the community.
Altogether, Douglas County has a 99-bed facility, including the two isolation rooms at the main jail.
“The facility here is maxed out,” Nohre said. “It’s filled to the brim.”
That means sending prisoners – and county money – elsewhere. As of February 18, Douglas County had 19 of its prisoners at the jail in Kandiyohi County, at a minimum cost of $55 per prisoner per day.
Last November, the county spent nearly $26,000 housing prisoners in other counties. Douglas County Sheriff Bill Ingebrigtsen expects the county to spend as much as $400,000 this year housing prisoners out of the county.
That’s why, according to Olson, counties around Douglas County are at the jail meetings.
“The interest is out there in our area,” Olson said. “Most of the counties in our area don’t have the population to support a jail.”
The jail committee is asking and trying to answer a multitude of questions, including: Where should a jail be built? How large should a jail be? What kind of building should it be? How can you maximize the safety of the prisoners and the jailers?
The size issue begs the question of how many prisoners can be expected down the road. Without a crystal ball, it’s as much a guessing game as anything, but Ingebrigtsen believes the number of prisoners will continue to rise.
“If this project ever becomes a reality, by then we could very easily be looking at housing 30 or 40 prisoners out of the county,” he said.
As Nohre finishes checking on each of the prisoners, it’s apparent that nobody else is watching. Nobody could see if something happened to Nohre, since the prisoners aren’t visible without entering the cellblock.
More unnerving is that the jailers can’t carry a gun. Because of the facility’s ventilation system, they can’t use things like mace or pepper spray, either.
“If we would mace someone down here, the judge upstairs could be affected,” Ingebrigtsen said.
That begs another question: Should the court system also move if a new jail is built?
For the time being, most of the questions don’t have answers. Instead, the committee is still in the process of finding all the right questions to ask.