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Beltrami County Board discusses jail renovation project

BEMIDJI -- A renovation project at the Beltrami County Jail, estimated to cost $3.4 million in 2008 when portions of it were shelved due to the Great Recession, may soon be back on, and $15,000 from the county's capital improvement fund represents the first step.

District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick recommended the amount after hearing Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp's description of issues faced by jail staff. Hodapp's presentation came during the work session of the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday.

Many of the technological upgrades Hodapp told the board in 2008 were needed, have been made. What remains, Hodapp said, are projects that will move a kitchen and several administrative offices out of the building's "secure footprint," making room for a prison population that is nearly twice the size of the facility's original capacity. The cost of the renovations has yet to be determined.

"The next step is to basically pull the trigger on doing the bricks and mortar piece of this job," Hodapp told commissioners. "It's a process that needs to be done over a short period of time."

The board unanimously approved granting $15,000 to fund the initial stage of the project, which will involve hiring an architectural firm to determine a cost for the renovations, Hodapp said.

According to jail administrator Cindy Borowski, an increased number of fights and assaults in the past two years are the result of an inmate population average of about 125 people.

"One of the contributing factors to the fights we're having is overcrowding," Borowski said. "When you get too many people in one space it causes tension. A lot of these people that we have have no-contact orders with each other, and they've had issues on the outside so when they come to jaill that's their opportunity to settle the score."

In 2011, there were three fights in the jail. That number climbed to 17 in 2012 and 21 so far this year, according to statistics provided by Hodapp. The lack of solitary confinement cells has added to the volatility among inmates, Hodapp and Borowski said.

"A lot of times these people will end up in an isolation because we have no other choice, and we can't put them in general population," Borowski said.

Isolation cells are for the protection of inmates that often include sex offenders and transgendered inmates.

Another part of the project would move the second-floor booking area to the first floor. That would do away with several visitation booths that have been closed since the county introduced a video visitation system. Family and friends of inmates can log in through the county's website to speak with those who are incarcerated. There is currently one video visitation booth at the jail, and there are no plans to add more, Hodapp said.

"We're trying to get people to visit with inmates from their homes," he said.

There is currently no timeline for the project to begin, but with 122 currently listed on the jail's custody website, Hodapp stressed the need for action.

"Essentially what I'm asking is that we re-initiate our jail construction committee that we had (in 2008) and get that moving again," he said.

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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