Special Report: Inside The St. Louis County Jail

DULUTH, Minn. — In part two of a special report – Jail Dangers – we take you to the St. Louis County Jail where safety and security concerns go far beyond the walls of the jail.

“We’re basically running a little city there,” said Sheriff Ross Litman.

“I have a really high level of admiration for the staff that work for me and with me in our jail division. It’s an extremely difficult, difficult job,” Litman said.

Capt. Jessica Pete is in charge of all jail operations of the 26-acre site of Duluth main jail.

“Whatever the courts deem is what’s a risk to St. Louis County, those are the ones we keep here. So we keep the worst of the worst, is basically what it is,” Pete explained.

Pete is constantly thinking of ways to make the jail safer for staff and inmates.

“You got to remember that all inmates have is time. So all they have is time to think of ways to mess with the system if they would like to,” Pete said.

Intake Cell

Some facility improvements include the replacement of ceramic sinks and toilets with stainless steel.

“Ceramic can become a weapon when they break it. Somebody who is unstable already who wants to hurt themselves, could use that to hurt themselves. They could also ide it and hurt one of us or somebody else in the unit,” Pete said.

And just last year, a swinging shower door was switched out with a steel door that has two secure openings — after a high-risk inmate violently attacked an officer.

“Has a food-pass type opening to get the hand restraints off and an opening at the bottom by the feet to get the feet restraints off.  And then it’s secure,” Pete said.

The Duluth jail is a 195 bed facility often packed with an average daily population of 219.

The county also has two smaller jails in Virginia and Hibbing.

Most of the inmates have court dates which means a whole other set of safety and security concerns for corrections officers during the transporting of those inmates outside the jail — all the way inside the court room.

“Anything can happen. And it’s a huge security thing. And so that’s why one of the things we never do is we never tell an inmate when they are being transported. Once they know about it, then we don’t allow them access to phones to call anybody,” Pete said.

The goal is to keep all human contact with the outside world as minimal as possible for the safety of the public, and the inmates.

Sheriff Litman says the 2010 opening of the sally port at the St. Louis County Courthouse has greatly improved that safety goal compared to the past when inmates were unloaded out in the open air.

“An inmate that’s in our custody that’s coming down here for a court appearance is never having that direct public interaction and potential risk and danger on the safety, themselves or the people who come into this building,” Litman said.

Beyond the sally port’s garage is a secure holding area of jail cells for inmates waiting to see a judge.

 

“That door won’t open until this one closes, and I can’t open this door until that one’s closed. We call that interlocked,” Litman said.

And beyond those doors is a secure hallway that leads to arraignment court where the suspect stays behind glass.

“So there’s no direct interaction with the public out in the public corridor,” Litman said.

Meanwhile, back at the jail, Capt. Pete faces all types of daily challenges like the rise in inmates who have mental health issues, which she says can get dangerous.

When it’s a behavioral issue, I can pretty much predict what your next behavior is going to be like. Humans are kind of known for being that way. When it’s mental health, I can’t predict your behaviors. It changes so quickly,” Pete said.

But even so, Pete believes working in a jail is one of the most rewarding jobs in law enforcement.

“I still love it to this day. I still come to work and go, alright, today I am going to make a difference. Let’s figure out how to make this better,” Pete said.

And as for Sheriff Litman who recently was sworn in for his fifth term, he answers this question in one word: What’s the worst and best part of your job?

“It’s people. We have a front row seat of the greatest show on earth. We can watch people and see them at their absolute finest and then unfortunately, because of who we are and what we do. We also see them at their absolutely worst,” Litman said.

The Sheriff’s Office is always looking for people interested in becoming a corrections officer at the jail.  All you need to have is a valid license, be 18 years or older, have a GED or high school diploma and a clean criminal record. The rest is trained on the job and starting pay is roughly $22.00 an hour.

For a look inside the Douglas County Jail, click here.

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