Clay Co. Mulls Jail’s Future

Clay County Courthouse in Vermillion

VERMILLION — The rejection of a $41 million bond issue Tuesday by Clay County voters has prompted Sheriff Andy Howe to implement changes in the operation of the Clay County Jail.

Those changes include limiting the time that inmates stay in the jail in Vermillion and housing them elsewhere at a considerable expense to Clay County.

The changes will also have a considerable impact on the county’s budget.

“I estimate that we’ll start paying about $28,000 to $30,000 a month, starting in June,” the sheriff said during a Clay County Commission meeting Thursday, replying to a question from County Commissioner Mike Manning. “I’m going to be requesting — I’m estimating now — about $160,000 this year to the jail budget to handle this and then next year, you can about double that. That will be in the jail request for 2022 which I haven’t completed.”

There’s currently about $70,000 remaining in this year’s jail budget. That means next year’s total request will reflect a growth of about $250,000 in that budget.

He discussed those changes with the commission meeting.

“We’ve been talking all along that we’ve been kind of hanging on by our fingernails running the jail in the hopes that we would be moving forward in constructing a new one,” Howe said. “Our belief was that we were acting in good faith on the deficiencies and the conditions that we’re putting the inmates in and that we were working toward a solution. At this point, there is no solution on the horizon.”

At recent public forums to discuss the bond issue before Tuesday’s election, the sheriff noted that failure of the issue would prompt the closure of the jail.

He told commissioners he’s not ready to completely shut down the facility, but will transform its operation to be more a holding facility.

“What I want to do … is keep it staffed, receive the incoming inmates and then keep them for a maximum of 72 hours,” Howe said. “If they are to be kept longer than that or they haven’t left yet, we will move them to Union County or any other facility where we can find space.”

The Clay County Commission agreed last March to ask voters to approve the issuance of the bonds. If the funding had been approved, the dollars would have been used to construct a new county jail, law enforcement safety center, courts and government services facility at a different site other than the present century-old courthouse in Vermillion, which contains the county jail.

Both the courthouse and the current law enforcement center, which were constructed in 1912 and 1989, respectively, would have been vacated.

The bond issue failed overwhelmingly at the polls. Of the 2,310 Clay County voters that cast ballots to whether the county should seek a $41 million bond issue, 1,544 voted “no.” That equates to approximately 66.8% of voters indicating they did not favor the county’s plan.

Several county citizens opposed to abandoning the courthouse launched an advocacy group entitled “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse.” The group also launched a Facebook page urging citizens to vote against the bond issue and to work toward solutions that would lead to construction of a new jail and renovation of the courthouse to keep it the center of county government.

For the time being, Howe will be implementing an option that’s been in place for years to overcome deficiencies in the Clay County Jail: transporting inmates to other jails.

“I’ve already met with the Union County Sheriff; he would take all of our inmates as we speak today, although they typically get full,” the Howe said. “If they get full, we also have contracts with Yankton County, Minnehaha County, Thurston County, Nebraska, Plymouth County in Iowa and Sioux County in Iowa to take our inmates.”

He said he doesn’t anticipate reducing the jail staff.

“We need to staff 24 hours; we have a lot of other duties besides monitoring the inmates,” Howe said, noting that there are other duties at the jail that demand staffing.

“We could say, ‘Well, we’re not going to have that all; we’ll have a complete closedown and have all arresting officers transport inmates to jail elsewhere,’ but I don’t think that practically serves our citizens and it doesn’t serve this agency, either, because we have to transport them back in the morning,” he said.

Under his plan, the number of jailers in the Clay County facility will be reduced.

“At times, we have two jailers on duty. I think we can reduce that to one at a time and the other two positions will become transport personnel,” Howe said. “We would increase their training and they would handle these transports so we aren’t keeping deputies off the road. Deputies would still pick up a lot of the transports, but primarily it will be the transport officers.”

He said limiting the time inmates stay at the Clay County Jail would help protect their constitutional rights from the many limitations of the facility.

“The issues that we have in terms of functionality, lacking amenities that protect the constitutional rights of the inmates, such as sunshine, fresh air, things like that, wouldn’t necessarily come into play in those first 72 hours,” Howe said. “I don’t think we’re really depriving anyone of any rights that they have in that period.”

There will be minimal use of the older part of the jail and authorities will try to maintain inmates in the newer part of the facility.

“But, we’ll need all of it,” the sheriff said.

Howe said some issues in the jail need to be addressed since it must continue to be in operation.

“We have one shower that we long ago shut down because it was in such bad shape. I want to see if I can get that fixed,” he said. “I want to convert one of the cell blocks into work release housing and my hope is that we can hold four adult work release (inmates) and in another cell block, we can resolve a few plumbing issues.”

Howe said his proposal is a temporary solution “because the jail is getting older and older as we sit here. There’s been a lot of allegations that it was mismanaged and that it was poorly maintained and that’s just not the case.

“The issues are just the age and the lack of renovation,” he said. “We’ve been spending thousands of dollars a year maintaining and improving the jail and that will continue. We can actually take some steps, once we reduce the population, to fix some issues that we haven’t been able to fix just because we’re there, living, working in the building all of the time. There’s only so much that you can do.”

Resolving those issues will help extend the life of the jail a bit longer, Howe said. “But we won’t be housing inmates in our jail any longer. They’ll just be transitioning through our jail.”

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