Winona engages in conversation about justice

Engage Winona hosted a public meeting to hear ideas about alternative forms of justice from Winona residents.

Engage Winona logo
Engage Winona

WINONA — With a focus on youth incarceration, nearly 100 Winona County residents met virtually Wednesday night to talk about justice programs in Winona County.

Hosted by community action organization Engage Winona, the listening session featured county residents talking about alternatives to incarceration and whether the county is headed in the right direction with its plans for a new jail.

"It's important we focus on upstream in the justice system," said one woman logged in as "Bonnie" via the Zoom chat. "Mental health services, drug addiction services, family services: without talking about these, we can’t talk about the jail."

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Winona Mayor Scott Sherman asked Bonnie what was causing resistance to programs that are alternatives to incarceration.

Sherman, whose city would be at the center of any new justice initiatives but who also largely sits on the sideline as the Winona County Board of Commissioners make the big decisions on jail size and county-wide justice programs, said he tuned in Wednesday night to listen and learn.

Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman

"I’m trying to find out, what are the concerns, where are the inefficiencies and how can the city help with those conversations," Sherman said.

Sherman said he understands the difficult decisions facing the county board with millions of dollars at stake and a deadline set by the Minnesota Department of Corrections which has said it will sunset the county's jail on Sept. 30.

One thing he heard throughout the 90-minute discussion was the need to find the right solution for juveniles.


"The conversation kept coming back to youth, because that’s where the problem starts," the mayor said.

Winona resident Mary Jo Klinker called on the county's decisionmakers to set a policy of zero incarcerations for youths.

Klinker said teens of color receive different treatment and even harassment both in schools and from law enforcement. She added that building juvenile detention facilities is an outdated model that other counties, including Olmsted County, are abandoning.

Ivy Everitt, a woman who said she grew up in Winona, said she was often truant to school because of issues outside her control. But being punished simply made her more rebellious, and she'd have likely done better with a mentor helping her overcome some of the hurdles in her life.

Spencer Hodge, an art teacher in the Twin Cities who grew up in Winona, said he was surprised Winona did not have a dedicated space for art as an after-school program for kids.

"Art saved my life from despair," Hodge said.

He agreed that mentors can make an impact to help teens channel their energies to something positive, like art. And, with Winona State University and Saint Mary's University, there would be no shortage of potential mentors for teens.

While many participants talked about finding alternatives to incarceration for juveniles, others brought up the proposed 80-bed jail Winona County is planning to build for $22 million and preliminary discussion by the county to renovation the current jail space for a juvenile detention center.


Scott Makstenieks was one of several individuals who suggested that the county's jail advisory committee was made up of people who work in the incarceration "industry." The makeup of that committee practically ensured the county would come up with the solution of a jail instead of other options, Makstenieks and others said.

Those other options need to include some of those upstream programs, several individuals said.

Claire Richards said there is a waiting list for access to mental health and drug dependency programs in Winona County, but those programs focus on the root causes behind much of the law-breaking activities of county residents, especially teens.

Richards said the county should look for state or federal grants to help with mental health services or social services to meet needs such as food and housing insecurity.

Like many rural counties, Richards said, Winona County needs to break old habits and worry more about alleviating the social and health pressures that cause illicit behaviors. That means changing the way police interact with teens and looking for solutions that don't include punishment.

"Our county has a pretty significant school-to-prison pipeline that is taking away their ability to be productive members of society," Richards said.

Brian Todd is the news editor at the Post Bulletin. When not at work, he spends time with his family, roots for the Houston Astros and watches his miniature dachshund sleep, which is why that dog is more bratwurst than hotdog. Readers can reach Brian at 507-285-7715 or
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