LE CENTER — Not every one of Le Sueur County’s 28,000 residents checked out their new $30 million Justice Center Saturday. It just seemed that way.
“I’d say we’re well over 300 people,” County Jail Administrator Mitch Overn said to Sheriff Brett Mason about midway through the four-hour open house.
And the crowds kept coming. Everyone from Overn to Mason to County Administrator Darrell Pettis were busy leading group after group through the new 80-bed jail, the state-of-the-art dispatch center, the two courtrooms, and the offices for law enforcement, court administration and more.
County Commissioner John King, who was greeting residents inside the front entrance, encouraged people to take a cookie and have a cup of coffee before they ran out.
“A lot more than the hundred we thought there’d be,” King said.
Most seemed pleased with the facility as they offered appreciation and parting comments to the tour guides.
“Thank you. Beautiful facility,” one man said.
“I’m glad you guys are going to be safer,” a woman told Overn, referring to his corrections officers.
“Where are the ‘Get of Jail Free’ cards?” a man asked.
Visitors saw a building that is filled with security and efficiency improvements compared to the space it’s replacing — in the courthouse, the historic Sheriff’s Residence, the jail across the street from the courthouse, and in scattered offices around Le Center.
But the tour guides repeatedly emphasized the biggest difference for staff — space. The change will be noticed by the jail cook, who has about three feet of room to move in the current kitchen; by the deputies currently working in space so tight that it’s four deputies to each computer; by the sheriff’s investigator who now works out of a bathroom; by the jail nurse who will no longer have to ask inmates intimate health questions in a booking area with numerous other people around.
“Our staff is beyond excited,” Mason said.
The jail makes up about a third of the overall 92,000 square feet in the Justice Center. Set up in a wagon-wheel design, a central control room sits at the hub with sightlines down each of the corridors leading off in all directions to pods of jail cells with a common room for each pod of cells.
The control room and the pods have one-way windows so corrections officers can see the inmates without the inmates being able to see when they’re being watched and when they’re not. The control room also has access to all of the more than 100 cameras throughout the complex, has computer displays warning whenever a door is open, can even remotely shut down water in a cell if an inmate is attempting to flood the room.
The capacity of the new jail — 80 beds in 40 cells — is far beyond the 18 to 30 prisoners the county typically houses. Mason said it was built with room to spare so there’s no danger of reaching maximum capacity in the near term. Other counties in the area are facing that issue, particularly with female prisoners, and are expected to seek to use some of Le Sueur County’s available beds.
“A couple of our neighbors have reached out,” Mason said.
Prisoners who end up in the jail will find an exercise room, a television in the common area of each pod, and a classroom for AA meetings, religious services and other activities — all mandated by the Department of Corrections, Overn said.
Even in its sparkling new state, the jail doesn’t look like a pleasant space to spend 30 or 90 days. But having a few distractions — which can be taken away for misbehavior — is important to maintain some level of peace, he said.
“If you’ve got unhappy inmates, your job is miserable,” he said. “But it’s not built to make them happy. It’s built to keep them safe.”
Security is also the focus elsewhere in the building, including just inside the front door. Anyone attending court hearings (outside of lawyers, judges and staff) will pass through an airport-style security checkpoint. The judge’s benches in the courtrooms have a bulletproof panel.
The main courtroom has a glassed-in booth that looks like a hockey penalty box just inside the door leading from the jail to the courtroom. That will greatly reduce any inclination an inmate might have to try to make a run for it and will be used for arraignments and other hearings when a jury isn’t present. (Currently, inmates have to be marched across a Le Center street, enter through the same courthouse door used by the public and take the public elevator to their courtroom.)
Along with being more secure and functional, the new building has some stylistic elements as well. A pair of Le Sueur County companies are on display in the architecture. Kasota Stone is prominent in the exterior. Cambria has its quartz on display in the courtrooms. Large windows look out over Le Center and surrounding farm fields.
“We’re just really proud of it,” Mason said. “And we’re on time and we’re under budget.”
Next up for Pettis and the County Board will be reconfiguring the space freed up in the courthouse to make room for public health, human services and environmental services staff.
“We should have ample office space in this building for 20 years,” Pettis said of the courthouse.
The fate of the old jail, built in the 1980s, is uncertain. But the 1912 Sheriff’s Residence, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will be preserved even after the sheriff’s department moves out.
Suggestions have included making it the new home for the Le Center Public Library or into a museum for the Le Sueur County Historical Society.
“Those would most likely be the two choices,” Pettis said.
Sheriff’s office employees and jail inmates will be moving into their new home in the next three weeks, and the building will open to the public on Sept. 3.
Mason might be the only one feeling a bit conflicted about the move. He’s the great-grandson of Sheriff Pat Smith, the last sheriff to live — not just work — in the Sheriff’s Residence. His grandfather, longtime Sheriff Pat Smith, Jr., was the second generation to serve in the office, and Mason has childhood memories of visiting him at work before eventually following in his footsteps.
Which explains why the doors to Mason’s office in the brand-new Justice Center are 107 years older than every other door in the building. He brought them with him.
“I’m going to miss the nostalgia,” Mason said. “... We had a lot of good memories in it.”