Wright County could go deeper into the jail business

For several years prior to the construction of the Wright County Law Enforcement Center, the county spent tens of thousands of dollars a year to board prisoners elsewhere because of a space crisis. Now, Wright County is potentially on the verge of bringing in more than $1 million a year in profit to house other agencies’ prisoners.

Last month, the Wright County Board of Commissioners approved opening one of two dormant pods to take in outside prisoners. Less than three weeks later, Sheriff Joe Hagerty said the outside response to reasonably price bed space has been overwhelming.

“We’ve only had the new pod that we opened up for a month and we’re already turning prisoners away from other counties,” Hagerty said Aug. 22. “We were up to 245 prisoners this morning and that hasn’t been unusual.”

The requests for bed space has been impressive considering that the county opened the new pod in mid-July, but didn’t inform outside agencies until Aug. 1. The long-term planning that was done a decade ago has starting paying off.

When the county built its previous jail in 1991, it was constructed with the architecturally-challenging proposition that, if future expansion was needed, it would have to be done vertically – constructing a new level of cells on top of the existing jail footprint like a giant LEGO. Hagerty wasn’t the sheriff at the time the construction of the current facility was underway, but was appreciative of the vision that was put in by then-Sheriff Gary Miller, the county board and the county administration to design a facility that could grow and expand and potentially turn an expenditure into a revenue source.

“The county board had the foresight back then to build it plenty big and leave room for expansion – the build could expand to add more pods straight to east if and when we ever need to,” Hagerty said.

“Obviously, there has been no discussion of additional construction on the site, but, at some point if the county wants to expand, that potential exists.”

The revenue that potentially could be generated is significant. The rate charged to house outside inmates is $55 per inmate per day. Hagerty estimated the cost of clothing, feeding and providing the day-to-day necessities for prisoners at about $10 a day, which adds up to about $1 million a year. But, it does come with additional costs for medical service contracts and additional staffing.

The biggest question was what is the true bottom line of being a clearing house for prisoners? No matter how you cut it, the revenue adds up quickly.

“The trick is, what’s the tipping point for adding staff?” Hagerty said. “We added six corrections officers to open the new pod. You’re probably looking at $300,000 in staff costs, but if we can generate $1 million in revenue from it, we feel like, when all costs are factored in, we’re going to make about $600,000 a year if inmate levels stay the same.”

Commissioner Mike Potter said that the county board was pleased by the revenue numbers that were presented, but was more impressed with how the plan to open one of the two available pods was done because it factored in all the costs as well as the revenue.

“I applaud Sheriff Hagerty because he’s been honest and open not just on the revenue side, but the expense side of the equation – here’s what the gross is and this is what the net will be,” Potter said. “He’s been really transparent about what we’re getting into and I think it’s been a great help to all the commissioners. We make good decisions based upon good information and he’s provided us with that.”

The county is currently averaging about 50 prisoners a day that are State of Minnesota prison system parole violators and about 50 a day from the Sherburne County Jail, which is full to capacity primarily with federal inmates. On an average day, only about 100 of the 240 or so prisoners in the Wright County Jail at any given time are actually prisoners incarcerated for crimes in Wright County.

Prior to building the current jail, Wright County had to find any available bed space, which sometimes required prisoners be taken as far away as Duluth to the north and near the North Dakota border to the west because it was the closest available space. Now that Wright County is on the supply side of the equation and not the demand side, when will Hagerty potentially ask board to open the fourth pod?

“We’re having that discussion right now,” Hagerty said. “Naively, about a month ago I told the county board that next year at this time, we may very well have the next pod open. Since then, we’ve got to the point that we’re already turning inmates away. There’s no timetable on it, but when you’re turning away prisoners from other counties and other agencies already, it’s eye opening.”

What could make the long-term feasibility of being a consistent revenue producer at the county jail is the amount of time it takes to build a facility similar to the one Wright County constructed. From start to finish, it was more than a four-year process from approval to send out bids for the initial schematic to the doors opening for business.

Hagerty said that, as far he knows, there are no county facilities in the metro area between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud even in the planning stage, much less the construction phase, giving Wright County a decided monopoly on the prisoner market.

“In terms of the jails that are close to the Twin Cities metro, where most of the population of Minnesota lives, we’re the only ones that have available room now and for the near future,” Hagerty said. “There have been a couple of jail remodel projects done over the last couple of years, but those haven’t added any jail space. Right now, we’re the only show in town in terms of available jail space and that won’t change any time soon.”

There is no great rush to open the final existing pod because the current jail is licensed to house up to 288 prisoners a day. When the fourth pod is opened, that number would exceed 300 and a process of licensing a larger facility would need to be approved.

Hagerty said that potentially opening the last pod will part of the budget discussions in September with the county board as part of the 2018 budget process. However, due to the logistics, a fourth-pod opening would likely require five or six new employees, nothing would likely happen until sometime in 2018 at the earliest.

Potter echoed those sentiments but said that, as long as the jail can be monetized, the county board is more than willing to listen to the plans and objectives of opening 60 more beds up for business because they’re already in place.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of discussion that goes into this before we open the last pod, because at full capacity, it will need Minnesota Department of Corrections approval given the numbers,” Potter said. “But we built that facility with the intention of filling it and we have that opportunity. Why not utilize it?”

John Holler covers the Wright County Board of Commissioners for the Monticello Times