Progress on the future of the Carlton County Jail has slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is steadily moving forward.

Two requests for proposals have been posted, a jail needs-related contract is in the works and the proposed female offender program has been paused.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections set a sunset date for the jail of July 31, 2023. Because of that, the county needs to move to a decision quickly, said Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau. After that date, the county cannot house inmates in the building as it currently stands.

County officials have two options: to stop housing inmates in Carlton County and pay to have them stay at another facility, or they can opt to build a new facility.

RELATED: Carlton County seeks up to $40 million for new jail

Proposals out for bid

One of the RFPs sought bids for jail facility design concepts at potential sites chosen by the county. The designs will help county officials and residents visualize what a new facility could look like. The RFP does not mean a jail facility will be built, Genereau said. However, it will help county officials come to a decision if a new facility moves forward.

The other request sought bids for a construction manager for additions and renovations at the jail. The contractor chosen will advise the county on the $40,000,000 project and oversee all phases of it.

Genereau said the bids have closed and a decision will be made the last week of April. He said each RFP had six companies bid for the jobs.

Research rolls on

A contract with Mike Griebel, an independent consultant, is nearing completion.

Griebel was tasked with conducting research on what it would cost to close the jail and maintain a facility to house people who are arrested for 72 hours. After that time, inmates would be moved to facilities in other counties, which would add costs, including transportation and fees to the county where the inmates are housed.

Griebel is also studying the costs of Carlton County utilizing the Northeast Regional Corrections Center compared to building a new facility.

Griebel will bring the results to the county board when he is finished.

Female offender program on pause

Progress on the female offender program has been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

County commissioners voted in January to develop a program for women and seek up to $40 million in local option sales taxes to pay for a new jail.

The current facility does not have enough room to house all of its female inmates. According to the Carlton County Jail Study Implementation report presented to the board in 2019, the number of female inmates admitted to the jail increased in 2002 and 2003 and continued to grow through 2018. In 2017, the jail served 529 women, compared to 252 women in 2007 — an increase of more than 100%, according to the report.

Northeast Regional Corrections Center currently serves men, but there are no services for female prisoners. The only local program that provides services to female offenders is the Duluth Bethel Chemical Dependency Service. But Bethel has just 10 beds for women.

There are not any regional female offenders programs in Minnesota for jail inmates, Genereau said.

Looking at the numbers, it's clear there's a gap in services for incarcerated women, said Carlton County Commissioner Dick Brenner. Brenner is on the county's jail steering committee.

"I think it's definitely a need," he said. "It makes sense. There is a serious void in northern Minnesota."

Several members of the county's jail steering committee, including Genereau, Brenner, Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake, Jail Administrator Paul Coughlin, Carlton County Economic Development Director Mary Flannigan and Commissioner Marv Bodie, spoke before the Minnesota House of Representatives Tax Committee in March.

The group asked for permission to pursue a referendum that would ask county residents if they want to pay for a new jail facility through local option sales taxes or property taxes.

They were scheduled to testify in front of the Minnesota Senate to get similar language in the state tax bill. However, they did not get to testify because the Legislature shut down that week. If the bill does not pass this year, the county will need to work with lawmakers to approve a measure in 2021.

The committee is also asking for up to $3 million dollars in state bonds for capital investments. The investments need to have an impact in the region. That money would go towards studying and putting a plan together for a female offender program. The new program could potentially be used as a model by other facilities in the future, said Genereau.

Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives Capital Investment Committee told the steering committee they are excited about the potential program, Genereau said.

The committee will conduct research to find the best model with a high probability of success for the female offenders, Genereau said.

County officials would collaborate with other agencies to build the regional program for women, Bodie said.

"We're working with the criminal justice partners to design the best program we can," he said. "We're looking for state partnership for this pilot program."