Beltrami County Jail ordered to reduce inmate capacity after DOC investigation
The Beltrami County Jail has been ordered to reduce inmate capacity after a Minnesota DOC investigation showed that the jail's minimum staffing requirements were not met on several occasions.
BEMIDJI — The Beltrami County Jail has been ordered to reduce inmate capacity after a Minnesota Department of Corrections investigation showed that the jail's minimum staffing requirements were not met on several occasions.
Based on documented findings, the DOC ordered the Beltrami County Jail to submit a capacity reduction plan by close of business Monday, Jan. 30, and to reduce its capacity by Wednesday, Feb. 1.
According to documents from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, on Jan. 24, the DOC recently received a complaint raising concerns about threats to the lives and safety of the jail's inmates.
Throughout the course of the ongoing investigation into the complaint, the DOC reportedly discovered "multiple repeated violations of minimum staffing requirements" by the Beltrami County Jail, the documents said.
Specifically, the DOC inspector reviewed the staffing levels at the jail during 52 shifts and determined that the minimum staffing levels were not met on 35 of the 52 shifts. During additional shifts, jail staff members were used for emergency medical transports, which resulted in the jail falling below minimum staffing levels.
Instances from Jan. 5 and Jan. 24 have been identified in which jail staff "attempted to prevent or have delayed medical transport of inmates for emergency care despite direction from medical staff that emergency medical care was clinically indicated," the documents said.
Jail staff have also identified the lack of available staff as a reason for wanting to avoid medical transports.
The investigation has also reportedly identified multiple instances in which the Beltrami County Jail staff failed to properly conduct well-being checks in a timely manner. Well-being checks were allegedly not in compliance immediately following a suicide attempt that occurred on Jan. 24, according to the investigation's findings.
"Based on the DOC's investigation to date, Beltrami County Jail's failure to comply with applicable minimum staffing requirements has created conditions that pose an imminent risk of life-threatening harm or serious physical injury to individuals confined or incarcerated in the facility, such that the reduction of capacity limits imposed by this conditional license order is necessary and will promptly correct the imminent risk of harm," the documents said.
As of Monday, Jan. 30, Beltrami County Jail's license has been placed on conditional status, meaning the jail has to limit its capacity to detain inmates in order to maintain its license.
The Beltrami County Jail's approved maximum capacity is now reduced to 80 inmates from 132, and its bed capacity is reduced to 72 inmates from 118, which will last until May 31, 2024, or until further order by the DOC.
The jail has been ordered to submit a capacity-reduction plan to the DOC in order to reach the capacity limits by close of business Monday, Jan. 30, and the capacity reduction needs to be achieved by noon Wednesday, Feb. 1.
During this process, the jail must provide daily written updates to the senior detention inspector on its capacity-reduction efforts, and must also report to the inspector any time the facility's population exceeds capacity limits.
Beltrami County Sheriff Jason Riggs said he received the order from the DOC commissioner Friday, Jan. 27. The next day, officials took action on the order and began “running inmates basically all across the state of Minnesota to different county jails that had bed-space available,” he said.
Issues with both inmate capacity and staffing shortages aren't new to the jail. In fact, jail staffing shortages have been an ongoing issue in Minnesota and throughout the country, Riggs explained.
“It’s a very high-liability area,” he said about working in the jail. “More specifically to the Beltrami County area, we’re dealing with a very sick population — people who aren’t taking good care of themselves when they’re out of jail. A lot of people are using drugs or alcohol, and when they come to jail and they’re coming down from them, a lot of their symptoms manifest. It can be difficult when that happens.”
The Beltrami County Jail Project, which has been in motion for more than a year, began after a previous DOC investigation revealed that the jail was facing challenges including severe housing capacity limitations, the inability for the jail to meet design standards, and an increase in needs for mental health and chemical dependency resources.
Following that investigation, the county was given the option to either address these issues or close the facility.
Justice Planners LLC was then hired to conduct a Needs Assessment and Feasibility Study. The study revealed that a key issue with the current detention center is that the overall jail population is rising, and the facility is too small to safely and responsibly hold a large number of inmates.
Justice Planners officials presented seven options to the Beltrami County Board on how to move forward with the future of the facility, and on Nov. 15, 2022, the board voted unanimously to construct a new jail.
Riggs expressed that the outdated facility has not only created issues for inmate capacity — it's also the primary cause of staff struggles.
“One of the things we deal with at our current facility is a multi-tiered jail, so we have a basement, a first floor and a second floor,” he said. “Per DOC requirements, there has to be a certain number of staff members available on each floor — it’s not a direct-line-of-sight jail.”
While the current jail, built in 1989, confines inmates to separate floors, modern jails are designed to be more open, with fewer separated floors. This makes it possible for a smaller amount of staff to watch over a larger amount of inmates.
County officials hope a new detention center can remedy inmate capacity and staff issues, but several steps will need to be taken before construction of the jail can begin, including getting permission for a local option sales tax and determining where the new facility will be located.