WINONA — The Winona County Board of Commissioners will take another deep dive into the issue of how big a jail the county needs and what its goals for incarceration might be.
Tuesday, the board voted 4-1, with Commissioner Marie Kovecsi the lone no vote, to hold a workshop on the issues surrounding building a new jail.
The Department of Corrections informed the county that its current jail will be closed next year. The county board has created a Jail Advisory Committee and it has recommended a new jail be built with either 78 or 98 beds.
That's where things stalled this week. Commissioner Steve Jacob requested at Tuesday's board meeting that discussion about the jail's size continue due to changes in jail usage that could come after recent events such as COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd.
"I feel like there are quite a few things that have changed in the last four months with respect to our jail population," Jacob said.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob said earlier this month the county had only 18 inmates spread between the 180 beds available in Winona, Houston and Wabasha counties. Due to social distancing requirements, the county found alternatives to incarceration for individuals awaiting trial. Furthermore, Jacob said, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis there has been widespread talk about alternatives to incarceration such as greater use of diversion programs and monitoring systems.
All this, Jacob said, could greatly reduce Winona County's need for space for inmates.
"We should be looking at how we can keep those lower-risk inmates out of jail," Jacob said. "In 1978, we built a facility that was immediately out of date. I don’t want to see that happen again."
Jacob's request was generally supported by three other commissioners: Marcia Ward, Chris Meyer and Greg Olson. However, Kovecsi said she was concerned a workshop to discuss how the pandemic and renewed talk of prison reform should not delay the current process that would likely end in a new $25 million jail.
County Administrator Ken Fritz said a meeting of the jail committee had already been delayed to have the discussion on whether or not to hold a workshop.
However, the other commissioners agreed that another delay for the jail committee to get on with its planning is worth the wait. The board approved a workshop scheduled for July 14 by a 4-1 vote with Kovecsi voting no.
Immediately thereafter, Ward asked commissioners to hold a budget workshop to give guidance to county staff as they work to plan for the 2021 budget. However, no other commissioners supported her idea.
"I know that the budget is an important part of our job, maybe the most important part of our job," Meyer said. "No one wants high taxes, but we have to pay for the services we’re required to supply. The things we don’t have to do, we’re not doing them."