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Good question: Why are jail inmates being shipped out of Steele County?
Rick Bussler, Publisher
rick bussler, editor, opinion, hot pursuit

“Hey, why are Steele County prisoners being held down in Mower County?”

That’s a good question as posed to me by a long-time reader last week. The reader pointed out how there are several inmates currently housed at the Mower County Jail in Austin located about 35 miles from Owatonna. And, as curious minds want to know, I went to the right to the source to find out.

Steele County Detention Center Administrator Anthony Buttera said the answer to that question is two-fold. Initially, it started out because the Detention Center was undergoing renovations to create a female section within the facility. With the renovation completed, now the local jail is facing another dilemma. It can’t find corrections workers.

As of last week, the Steele jail had six vacancies, according to Buttera. The jail is authorized for 22 corrections officers. With the staffing shortages, he has been forced to fill vacant shifts with overtime, which in of itself can be a dicey issue often leading to staff burnout. He said the shear amount of time one spends in the facility is often the reason why people ending up leaving their jobs.

“We’re just not seeing people coming through wanting to do this job,” Buttera said. “It’s disheartening for us.”

Even though Steele County has taken steps to beef up its pay scale, going from starting wage of $23.74 per hour to $28.45 per hour this year, it still is not bringing forth the candidates—at least the right ones.

“We have people coming through with criminal histories,” Buettera said of his candidate pool.

Asked what he’s looking for in the perfect candidates besides ones with clean criminal backgrounds, Buttera said he’s focused on communication. “We want people that can communicate well,” he said.

He admits the job isn’t exactly the most desirable. New corrections officers can expect to work 12-hour shifts and must report for duty every other weekend. “It’s a very tough job from a family standpoint,” Buttera said. “We’re looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack to find the one that fits,” he added.

The shortage of workers puts the jail in a tough spot where it must farm out an average of 4-6 female prisoners to Mower County. It creates additional transportation costs for Steele County to shuttle prisoners back and forth to Austin.

And it also drives down the overall jail population locally. The jail, Buttera said, has been averaging 26-27 inmates per day. “That’s definitely on the low end of what we’re used to,” he said, noting the pandemic four years ago started the downward spiral. “It has been a weird handful of years. Corrections and law enforcement have been really hit with this.”

The jail was originally designed to hold 154 prisoners. It hasn’t ever been at capacity. A few years back Steele County lost Dodge County prisoners when they switched to Olmsted County.

Buttera’s goal is to get staffing hired and inmates back under one roof by summer.

In the meantime, local officials will be in hot pursuit of tracking down qualified corrections workers to alleviate the on-going problems.

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