The Dakota County Jail plans to add a medical and mental health unit

Dakota County officials plan to build a new, specialized health unit at the Dakota County Jail designed to improve the mental health and medical care inmates receive while incarcerated.

The facility will treat inmates with physical and mental health issues, 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 for treatment and concentrate everyone in need of care in one place.

“It’s not just inmates — we’re talking about patients, patient-centered care,” said Pat Enderline, commander of the sheriff’s office’s detention division. “This is absolutely necessary. We are not providing the level of service we feel we could be.”

Studies by the county and an outside consultant over the past two years confirmed the need for the device, Dakota County officials said.

About 25 percent of inmates have a serious health problem that needs treatment while at the Dakota County Jail, a 263-bed facility in Hastings, according to county data.

The Dakota County Board approved spending $675,000 to design the unit and allocated $5 million for its construction. However, the total cost will be $12 million to $14 million, so the county is seeking additional funding, including from the Legislature.

If all goes according to plan, the unit will open in late 2024.

The jail has seen a sharp increase in the number of inmates with mental health issues in the past few years, he said.

The jail has a medical unit, but inmates with mental health issues are often sent to the reception area, Enderline said, placed in single or multiple-person cells or padded cells. This area is only intended for a “brief stop” before inmates proceed to the general housing unit.

“It’s essentially being used as a quasi-mental health facility, which is not conducive to their support … and it’s certainly not good for our staff trying to navigate that while managing the entire intake,” Enderline said. .

Inmates with serious problems are sometimes sent to the hospital, but often the hospitals are “full out” and have no available beds, so the inmate is sent back to the prison, Enderline said. In other cases, a prisoner cannot leave the prison because he is a security risk.

“Some people just need to be in jail. I mean we can’t have someone who is involved in murder or criminal sexual behavior or anything like that [go to the hospital],” he said.

In 2021, the Dakota County Jail recorded 275 inmates on suicide monitoring, 503 on substance withdrawal monitoring, 265 on medical monitoring and 739 on “feature” monitoring — meaning “something is wrong” with an inmate or need monitoring, Enderlein said.

The prison contracts with Advanced Correctional Healthcare, which provides its health care staff, including 24-hour on-site nurses. Additional security and health personnel will be employed in the new unit.

Jay Bidney, Dakota County capital projects manager, said the addition will likely be 13,000 square feet and one story. There will be 30 or fewer beds and one bed per cage. In the new ward, inmates will have their own outdoor space.

Jails typically segregate inmates receiving health care, but house them throughout the jail rather than in one area, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is deal with people with certain needs differently,” he said.

Other metro jails have different settings for handling medical and mental health needs. The Hennepin County Jail — the largest in the state — has a medical floor with four medical cells and a special area where mental health patients are sent, said Maj. Dawana Witt, who oversees the jail and court.

Hennepin County contracts with Hennepin Healthcare for staffing, she said, and employs 33 nurses and nearly two full-time doctors when staffing is full, she said.

Inmates with more serious needs are sent to Hennepin Healthcare, she said.

Scott County, which can house about 210 inmates, has a medical clinic in the building that inmates attend with three rotating nurses and a medical director, Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said.

However, “a lot of emergency room visits happen … which translates into a lot of security costs,” he said, adding that a guard accompanies every inmate to the hospital.

During regular business hours, inmates with mental health issues are visited by staff from the nearby Scott County Mental Health Clinic. After hours, the jail contracts with a mobile crisis team to treat inmates in the reception area.

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