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Renville County opens new jail

By Tom Cherveny

West Central Tribune

OLIVIA -- Renville County's jail population swelled to well over 1,000 on Wednesday, but all of the guests were short-timers.

They had come to tour the county's new jail facility in Olivia during an open house hosted last week.

The jail should be holding its first inmates by the end of August, according to Sheriff Jerry Agre. He said he was pleased by the public interest, and noted that the jail has also attracted lots of attention from well beyond the county's boundaries. Other counties looking at building new jails are interested in the no-frills approach that Renville County took to build a modern facility, and hold costs down, he explained.

Construction work on the nearly $6.4 million, 72-bed facility is essentially complete. The county is waiting for final approval from the Minnesota Department of Corrections before it can open, according to Elaine Johnson, jail administrator.

The jail was a project nearly five years in the making. It started when a county-appointed task force decided that "doing nothing was not an option'' and urged the county to address its jail needs, according to John Stahl, a member of the Renville County Board of Commissioners.

The county has been relying on an 11-bed jail, with eight of those beds in a dormitory setting.

As a result, the county has been forced to board most of its inmates out of county. Currently, it boards an average of 20 to 21 prisoners each day at jails in neighboring counties.

Renville County is losing $1,000 a day doing so, Sheriff Agre pointed out. It costs $55 to $60 a day to board an inmate out of county, and that doesn't include the time sheriff's deputies spend transporting the prisoners, he said.

While those are the kinds of numbers that drove the decision-making to build a jail, the numbers gaining the most attention now have to do with its construction. The county was able to keep the cost of the project within budget by being one of the first in the state to purchase pre-manufactured, steel jail cells.

The use of the pre-built cells allowed the county to limit the overall "footprint'' of the structure and keep costs down, said project architect Scott Fettig, Klein McCarthy Architects of St. Paul. The 23,400-square-foot facility holds 38 of the pre-built cells, most of them measuring 7 by 12 feet.

County officials also credited the project's construction management firm, Contegrity Group Inc. of Little Falls, for helping keep construction costs down.

Klein McCarthy and Contegrity also are working on a proposed $15 million Stevens County project to build a new jail and Law Enforcement Center and renovate the county courthouse.

Similar to the Kandiyohi County jail, Renville County's new jail is built on a "pod'' design. A number of cells are located together in an area that can be isolated and locked down for better security management.

The jail incorporates all of the latest in electronic security equipment, but the attention at the open house was focused more on its staff than the gee-whiz gadgetry. Johnson said there were 123 applicants for the eight-full time and three-part time jail positions. "This is the cream of the crop,'' she said when introducing the new employees.

Stahl told those attending the open house that it makes economic sense for Renville County to build its own jail and keep taxpayer dollars and jobs at home.

There is also merit in having all of the county corrections operations located under one roof and in the county, said District Judge Randall Slieter of Olivia.

Slieter pointed out that the county will be offering chemical dependency and education programs at the jail. Probation officers and others involved with the corrections system will have direct and improved access to offenders in the jail. It should improve the continuity in programming aimed at helping offenders become productive citizens, he said.

Slieter and others also noted that an in-county jail improves access for family members who can provide important support to offenders attempting to improve their ways.

Sheriff Agre said he believes the jail will save Renville County many thousands of dollars in the years ahead. Along with holding Renville County inmates, the new jail will lease cell space for offenders from other counties and the federal corrections system.

The jail already has Renville County inmates waiting for its opening: A number of Renville County offenders have accepted deferred sentences that will allow them to begin serving their sentences once the new jail opens.

On the day of the open house, jail officials already had a call from one asking about when he can start his sentence.