Jail population cut in half by COVID-19
Jail population in Steele County has been running about half of what it normally does since the COVID-19 crisis began in mid-March.
The current number of inmates locked up at the Steele County Detention Center in Owatonna is averaging 45 to 50, down from the pre-COVID-19 average of 90, according to Anthony Buttera, jail administrator.
Buttera estimates that the total number of arrests throughout the county has plummeted by 75% since the start of the coronavirus. “It’s almost non-existent,” he said of new inmates coming into the jail.
The downturn in new suspects being locked up is part of an overall plan to help the detention center survive the pandemic. Buttera worked with the Steele County Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies to “set up a perimeter of what we’re taking into the jail.” Officers currently are not booking suspects like they have in the past. However, people committing “high level crimes that pose an issue to the public” are still ending up in jail, he said. Some of those crimes are domestic violence, warrants and serious DWIs.
Sheriff Lon Thiele said officers are making decisions on incarceration on a case-by- case basis. “We’re not looking the other way,” he said. “Criminals who think they are not going to be arrested are thinking wrong.”
The jail even went as far as releasing non-violent criminals who had not yet completed their sentences, Buttera said. Five inmates on work release were allowed to “check back in at a later date,” he said.
“We want to keep it at a low number for a while to get through it,” Buttera said. He noted many jails across the state have implemented similar plans to keep the jail population low.
The drop in inmates has caused the county to place three detention center employees on furlough, Buttera said. Currently on furlough are a nurse, records support and programs assistant. There are four other employees in other county departments that have been placed on furlough status since last week. They are expected to be on furlough for up to 90 days.
While Buttera is disappointed in having to furlough employees, he stands by the decision to keep the jail population low. “It is designed to keep the inmates safe. If you get one (COVID-19) case in here, you’re going to have 30,” he said, adding they want to keep a small thing from blowing up.
And it seems to be working. Steele County has avoided any coronavirus cases from coming into the jail to this point. There have been a few scares where 10 inmates have been placed into quarantine for 14 days at different times because of suspected coronavirus, according to Buttera. However, they have all come back negative, he said. He added jail staff has been outfitted with personal protective equipment in dealing with all of those inmates.
Everybody coming into the jail is screened by having temperatures taken, and they are asked if they are sick.
Some of the jail’s programming has also been temporarily suspended to get through the pandemic, Thiele said.