Tour reveals woes at Martin County jail

JAIL TOUR — Sheriff Jeff Markquart shows one of the cramped cells in the Martin County jail in Fairmont to members of the Minnesota House of Representatives Capital Investment Committee on Wednesday. He noted that a wall that once divided the space into two cells had to be removed to comply with state Department of Corrections requirements.

FAIRMONT — For a little over 20 years, Martin County has struggled and made do with an outdated jail building and limited courthouse space.

Narrow corridors, cramped offices, water damage to electronics, a restrictive holding capacity and inmates moved through public areas are just some of the problems plaguing the two buildings.

The jail was built in 1974 and may have met the needs of the time, but more than 40 years later county commissioners and local authorities are faced with multiple issues that will require new structures if the jail is to continue operating.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, and members of the Minnesota House of Representatives Capital Investment Committee were able to see the problems firsthand, as part of a tour of southwestern Minnesota.

Martin County is asking the state for $20 million in 2020 to help with construction of a new justice center. Sheriff Jeff Markquart, Chief Deputy Corey Klanderud and county commissioners led a tour of the jail and courthouse for the committee.

“The jail is not ADA compliant,” Klanderud said at one point, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “All of our doorways and walkways are tight and we’re just not able to address those ADA issues. Our isolation cell is also poorly designed, and with the location of the cell it’s a difficult challenge to get people where we need them to go.

“Another thing we want to highlight is that, as of July 1, 2010, we became a male-only facility. So we are not able to house females and juveniles, and that becomes an increased expense to transport them to other locations. The closest space to house those inmates is Willmar, which becomes a six-hour round trip.”

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to keep the doors open,” Markquart said. “It’s not that the building is falling down around us, but the infrastructure of the building would need to be completely redone in order to make it work.”

County commissioners Elliot Belgard and Kathy Smith noted that with a price tag of $6 to $7 million, refurbishment is simply not a good option.

“I’m trying to figure out, out of the tax dollars, how much does the county get from individuals, homes and businesses,” said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, committee chairwoman of the Capital Investment Division.

“I can’t answer that right now,” Smith said, “but we have a net tax capacity of about $41 million, but that doesn’t all come in to the county.”

Belgard noted that the county’s total budget is about $26 million.

Continuing the tour, Markquart led the group to the jail’s evidence room, where gutters have to run underneath sewer pipes because raw sewage has previously leaked into the room.

“We can’t go up into the walls and change the pipes, but we figured it out and used our own ingenuity because we had to do something,” he said.

From there, he took the group to see the electronics room that controls the 911 system. The room is not climate-controlled, and a simple fan is the only temperature control for the delicate electronics. In addition, humidity and old pipes inevitably lead to water damage.

After showing a kitchen that doubles as a gun-cleaning room as well as cramped employee areas, Markquart summed up the overall issue for the visitors.

“It’s not the fault of the building,” he said. “It’s just that we’ve outgrown it.”