Replacing one of state’s most dangerous jails could cost $500 million

The Beltrami County jail in Bemidji rates as one of the most dangerous facilities in the state — and not just for inmates. In a recent update to the citizens of the northwestern Minnesota county, Beltrami County’s top law enforcement official laid it on the line.

“The physical building was not designed to function with the challenges of overcrowding and the inmate of today. Both of which has required us to add considerably more staff, which in turn costs the taxpayer more and more every year,” Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel wrote in the newsletter. “Being incarcerated or working in the Beltrami County Jail is dangerous, but the design of our jail shouldn’t be a factor that increases that risk. No other jail in Minnesota, of comparable size, has as many assaults on their staff as your Jail has right here in Beltrami County.”

County officials have been on notice since 2019 with the Minnesota Department of Corrections of the need to replace the jail or find other options. In his assessment for the public, Sheriff Beitel includes a chilling profile of the inmates authorities encounter now and how much has changed since the current jail was built in the 1980s.

The Beltrami County Jail is and continues to be the largest mental health and chemical dependency holding facility in the County. Jails should never have been used for this purpose, nor were they ever intended to be. But they are and continue to be used in that capacity in every jail nationwide. The inmates of today are not the inmates of yesterday. The rise in violent crime, compounded by the rise in inmates with Mental Health and Chemical Dependency needs, that are exacerbated by a very unhealthy inmate population, have drastically changed our Jail beyond its intended use.

Due to overcrowding, the county expects to spend some $650,000 housing inmates in jails in other counties this year, a figure projected to top $900,000 in 2023. And authorities anticipate the need for more jail beds will continue to increase in coming years.

But the Bemidji Pioneer says a report released at a recent public meeting puts the cost to replace the current jail at a staggering half billion dollars.

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.

Renovating the existing jail and other options included in the study were estimated to be slightly more costly to taxpayers.

“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 he 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.”

Residents will have another chance to comment on the proposal at one more public meeting before the county board votes on the issue in mid-November. Regardless of whether the board supports building a new jail or one of the other options, the cost of ensuring public safety will be rising with the crime rate in Beltrami County.