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Mower County jail’s capacity likely to fall

By Tim Ruzek

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Already reeling with overcrowding issues, Mower County’s jail likely will be losing more bed space.

Sheriff Terese Amazi told of the expected five-bed reduction before county officials led a tour Thursday evening through the jail and courtrooms for leaders from the city of Austin, Austin schools and Austin Area Chamber of Commerce.

A state corrections official indicated the likely reduction after doing an inspection of the jail Thursday.

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"That hurt," Jail Administrator Bob Roche said.

There’s also the possibility the state still will make the jail in downtown Austin a facility in which no inmate could be detained longer than 90 days, Amazi said.

With other restrictions under a 90-day license, Mower likely would drop from detaining 45 inmates to 15, with the county paying to board the rest at other jails in the region, she said.

Mower County houses about 18 inmates in Mitchell County, Iowa, and several others in Freeborn County, Chief Deputy Mark May said.

Reducing the jail’s capacity — officials don’t know when that will happen — will create more transportation expenses, he said.

County officials invited leaders from the city and schools to tour the jail and courtrooms to gain more knowledge about why the county needs new facilities.

The county is looking at building a jail or an entire justice center that includes courtrooms and law enforcement on farmland just outside southeast Austin. Jail overcrowding and courtroom security issues are main reasons.

The county’s plans call for building a 128-bed jail that could be expanded to hold 228, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said.

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City, school and chamber leaders have expressed concern with the county’s initial cost projections for a justice center and the long-term effects on the community of a high price tag.

One of the groups of local leaders, including school Superintendent Candace Raskin, walked past jail cells with inmates and saw the 41-year-old facility’s tight spacing and out-of-code kitchen.

In a jail hallway, School Board Chair Kathy Green told her tour group that the district isn’t being "adversarial" with the project. Amazi said she knows that no matter what the county does to fix its problems, it will mess up the district’s ability to levy for more tax funds through a referendum.

Her concern stemmed from not seeing the county and city working together on the issue, Raskin said. The local governments should work together on a solution "that doesn’t burden our children for the next 30 years," she said.

Oscarson called Thursday’s tour a "great first step" and said the board wants the city and school board to come to an evening meeting, possibly June 26, to hear a presentation on options and cost estimates.

City and school officials could return later to give input, he said. The county board would have its final vote in late July or August.

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