WINONA — How big should the jail be?

With lower inmate populations due to factors ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to a greater reliance on diversion programs instead of incarceration, Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob said he's not convinced the current options for a new jail – either 78 beds or 98 beds – is the right choice for the county and its taxpayers.

Jacob pointed to the last time Winona County built a jail, only to discover the new building was out of compliance with Minnesota Department of Corrections guidelines for jail design before the structure was even open.

"I'm worried Department of Corrections will come along with new regulations and say, sorry you're out of compliance," Jacob said.

For example, during the pandemic, cells with bunk beds are essentially useless, since inmates must be distanced at least 6 feet from one another. Additionally, the jail has been able to let more people arrested for non-violent crimes go home while awaiting trial.

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Right now, he said, there are 18 inmates locked up between Houston, Winona and Wabasha counties. Those three counties have jail space for 180 individuals.

"Will COVID change how jails are designed?" Jacob asked. "I think, this issue, we should be addressing it."

Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said checking with the DOC made sense, though he doubted the state agency had developed any new guidelines in the short time the state has been dealing with the pandemic.

County Attorney Karin Sonneman said revisiting the information that has been gathered by the Jail Design and Construction Committee is good, given what changes COVID-19 might bring, but added she would not recommend stopping the process for further study.

"I am still in agreement we need a jail," Jacob said, "but I'm seriously concerned about the size."

Rather than a 78- or 98-bed facility, Jacob suggested looking into something smaller, around 25 beds. If the need arose for more beds, the excess inmates could be transported to Houston County.

"My support for even 78 beds is dwindling," Jacob said. "To make a $21 million mistake to avoid 12 months of transporting (inmates), I can't support that."

In the end, the commissioners agreed to direct the jail committee to talk with the DOC about any changes or concerns about jail construction in the wake of the pandemic, but to continue with the current plans.