Dakota County officials plan to build a new specialized health unit in Dakota County Jail, dedicated to improving the mental health and medical care inmates receive while in custody.
The facility would treat inmates with physical and mental health problems along with substance use disorders. The new unit aims to reduce the number of hospital visits by inmates, provide them with a more therapeutic environment to heal and concentrate all those in need of care in one place.
“These aren’t just detainees – we’re talking about patients, about patient-centered care,” said Pat Enderlein, commander of the Detention Services Division at the Sheriff’s Office. “This is absolutely necessary. We are not providing the level of service we believe we can be.”
Studies from the county and an outside consultant over the past two years have confirmed the need for the unit, Dakota County officials said.
According to county data, about 25 percent of inmates have a serious health problem that needs treatment while in the Dakota County Jail, a 263-bed facility in Hastings.
The Dakota County Board approved spending $ 675,000 to design plans for the unit and set aside $ 5 million for its construction. The total price, however, will be $ 12 to $ 14 million, so the county is seeking additional funding, including from the legislature.
If all goes as planned, the unit will open at the end of 2024.
The prison has seen a sharp rise in the number of inmates with mental health problems in recent years, he said.
The prison has a medical unit, but inmates with mental health problems are often sent to the suction area, Enderlein said, placed in a holding cell for one or more people or in a padded cell. That area was intended only as a “short stop” before the inmates made their way to the general housing unit.
“That is, in essence, being used as a quasi-mental health unit, which is not conducive to their support … and certainly not good for our staff, who are trying to navigate by handling all of the hiring as well, “Enderlein said.
Inmates with serious problems are sometimes sent to hospital, but hospitals are often “excluded” and have no bed available, so the inmate is sent back to prison, Enderlein said. Other times, an inmate cannot leave the prison because it is a security risk.
“Some people just need to be in prison. I mean, we can’t have someone involved in murder or criminal sexual conduct or anything like that. [go to the hospital]”He said.
In 2021, the Dakota County Jail recorded 275 inmates on suicide surveillance, 503 on drug withdrawal, 265 on medical, and 739 on “character watch” – meaning “something is wrong” with an inmate or have need for observation, Enderlein said.
The prison contracts with Advanced Correctional Healthcare, which provides its healthcare staff, including nurses 24/7 on site. Additional health and safety personnel would be hired to work in the new unit.
Jay Biedny, head of Dakota County Capital Projects, said the addition would likely be 13,000 square feet and a story. It would come with 30 beds or less and one bed per cell. In the new unit, inmates would also have their own outdoor space.
Prisons typically segregate inmates who receive health care, but host them throughout the prison, not one area, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is manage people with defined needs in a different way,” he said.
Other metropolitan area prisons have different configurations to manage medical and mental health needs. The Hennepin County Prison, the largest in the state, has a medical floor with four medical cells and a special area where patients with mental health problems are sent, said Major Dawanna Witt, who oversees the prison and to the court.
Hennepin County has contracts with Hennepin Healthcare for staff, he said, and employs 33 nurses and nearly two full-time doctors when staff are full, he said.
Inmates with more serious needs are sent to Hennepin Healthcare, he said.
Scott County, which can house about 210 inmates, has a medical clinic in the building that inmates visit with three rotating nurses and a medical director, Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said.
Even so, “There are a lot of emergency room visits … which turn into a lot of security costs,” he said, adding that a guard accompanies every inmate to the hospital.
During normal business hours, inmates with mental health problems are visited by staff at the nearby Scott County Mental Health Clinic. After working hours, the prison signs a contract with a mobile emergency team to treat inmates in the suction area.