Ramsey County begins transfer of inmates as debate over jail funding intensifies
The Department of Corrections issued a similar capacity reduction order to Beltrami County on Jan. 27
ST. PAUL — Inmates started leaving the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center on Tuesday, Feb. 7, following a state Department of Corrections order to reduce the number of people held in the St. Paul facility.
Ramsey County has one of the biggest jails in the state, built to hold 500 people securely, just east of Interstate 35E near downtown St. Paul.
The state order has intensified the ongoing battle over money and public safety policy between the seven-member, DFL-controlled county board and Sheriff Bob Fletcher, among the more conservative elected officials in the Twin Cities.
The jail has recently had about 380 people behind bars — but not without difficulties. The county's public health department, which handles medical care at the jail, has been sounding the alarm for months about care of inmates there, including a woman who reportedly waited an hour or more to be seen by a doctor for a suspected stroke.
Officials sent a letter to Fletcher, and eventually a state complaint from the county was filed about its own jail.
“We felt that we had to report ourselves,” commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said Tuesday morning during a discussion about the jail by the county board. “That isn't something we do out of anything other than the concern about the welfare of the people in our adult detention center. That was it. There is no gain for us, other than the safety of those individuals.”
The order reduces the jail’s operational capacity to 324 inmates. The Department of Corrections issued a similar capacity reduction order to Beltrami County on Jan. 27. Both orders highlight a series of concerns about conditions in the state’s jails.
The FBI and a federal grand jury have probed the 2018 death of a Beltrami County inmate. The owner of a medical provider that served 40 jails in Minnesota and around the Midwest lost his medical license in connection with that death. A KARE 11 investigation found at least three other preventable jail deaths linked to inadequate care around the state.
Ramsey County has also paid out repeated civil settlements for incidents in its jail, including a $500,000 settlement with Terrell Wilson, who said jailers beat him in 2016.
The most recent complaints came to a head last week, when the state's corrections agency, which regulates local jails, ordered Ramsey County to reconcile its jail population with the staff available to work there and clear inmates out if necessary.
Commissioners said Tuesday they believe they'd funded the jail adequately, but that the Sheriff’s Office wasn’t taking the problems seriously.
Fletcher has sued the board in the past over funding for his agency, clashed with local officials over his popular livestreamed police patrols, and jockeyed with the DFL political establishment in St. Paul and its suburbs.
Fletcher said his agency isn't neglecting inmates.
“No one is more concerned about their safety than I am,” he told MPR News.
He said female inmates were being transferred to the county workhouse, usually meant for people post-conviction. Other inmates are to be transferred in coming days to other jails in the Twin Cities metro and across the state, at a cost to Ramsey County.
The sheriff said that his jail was understaffed by nearly 20 people. He said he warned the county, but it didn't provide for the surge in inmates since COVID-19 has waned.
“Yeah, we don't control who comes into jail. It's primarily the St. Paul Police Department that brings us prisoners and other police agencies,” Fletcher said. “But the fact is that St. Paul had a record homicide rate last year; some elected officials will try to run away from that figure, or ignore it, but it's the driving factor.”
He also said that he would ask for another 18 jail personnel by Oct. 1, and appeal the state order if his recruiting efforts paid off and he could staff up the jail.
But county commissioner Rafael Ortega said the safety issues, and a $2 million overrun in the sheriff's budget for 2022, were simply a bridge too far, and the county — which levies taxes — needed to rein in the sheriff.
“You know, we've identified the problems over and over again,” Ortega said. “The real question is, what are we going to do, besides meeting with the sheriff? We're responsible. We're the adults in the room."
In the meantime, the inmate transfers were expected to be complete Wednesday, leaving the jail in compliance with state orders.