OTC jail downgraded to Class I facility

By Robert Williams


The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) penalized Otter Tail County jail and placed the facility’s license on conditional status, effective immediately, last week.

Under Minnesota Statute, the DOC downgraded the jail’s license to a Class I Facility, which brings a substantial reduction in capacity and imposes specific conditions of compliance.

An investigation confirmed the jail deprived an inmate of food and water for 50 hours. The deprivation was part of a punishment for the inmate smearing his feces around his cell and refusing to clean the mess.

Otter Tail County Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons released a statement, saying that his staff will follow the state’s orders.

“I sincerely regret this incident occurred,” Fitzgibbons said. “Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office is dedicated to preserving the safety and security of our staff and our inmates. We will work closely with the DOC to ensure the requirements outlined in their order are being implemented.”

Correction officials ordered the transfer of inmates from the Otter Tail County Jail in Fergus Falls to different facilities by the close of business on Thursday, March 21. 

No new inmates will be allowed in the jail for more than 72 hours, excluding holidays and weekends until approval is given by the DOC.

A number of violations were reported by the DOC beginning on Saturday, Feb. 10.

The inmate was booked at the Otter Tail County Jail on February 9, at approximately 4:30 p.m.

He was transferred to the restrictive housing unit because he had disciplinary time left to serve from a previous term of incarceration at the jail.

The DOC’s review of facility video and incident reports revealed a full timeline from the inmate being housed to the removal of the inmate on Feb. 12, to be taken for a shower and given a sack lunch with water.

In the official report to the DOC, the Otter Tail County Jail Administrator contacted the DOC’s Inspection and Enforcement (I&E) unit to report potential staff misconduct that had been reported to her, namely that an inmate had been denied food for three meals over a weekend after defecating and smearing feces in his cell, and subsequently refusing to clean it up. 

Withholding of food from detainees as punishment is strictly prohibited.

The Jail Administrator informed the DOC that in response to that report, she had launched an internal investigation, including by engaging an outside law firm. Based on the Jail Administrator’s self-report and summary of the incident, as well as the assurance that an internal investigation was already underway, the DOC informed the Jail Administrator that it would wait to conduct its own review until Otter Tail County Jail’s internal investigation was complete or a complaint regarding the incident was filed with the DOC.

On Friday, March 1, the Ombudsperson for Corrections (Ombuds) referred a complaint regarding the incident it had received on February, 28 to the DOC for its review.

Additional disturbing information was reported beyond what had been originally provided to the DOC from the Jail Administrator, including more flagrant violations of minimum standards.

In response, a DOC Inspection and Enforcement Inspector traveled to the Otter Tail County Jail on Tuesday, March 5, to further investigate the incident. As part of its investigation, I&E urged the removal of the Inmate from the Otter Tail County Jail. 

As a result, the inmate was boarded at the Douglas County Jail. 

An inspector attempted to interview the inmate on March 7, but the inmate declined to provide information about the incident to the DOC. 

On March 12, the inmate requested to speak with investigators. The inmate’s report largely matched what was previously reported to the DOC; however, the inmate also reported that due to his water being shut off during the incident, he was forced to drink toilet water and his own urine.

Given the egregiousness of the health and safety violations outlined, the DOC mandated further training for staff. This training plan and timeline must be approved by the DOC. All training must be documented for the DOC’s review. All training must be completed within 30 days of the DOC’s approval of the training plan and timeline.

Other terms of the conditional license downgrade are the jail:

• Cannot house inmates/detainees on a contract basis on behalf of another jurisdiction.

• Will not be approved to house inmates serving alternative sentences while it is operating under a Class I Facility license.

• Shall confirm it has initiated its internal investigation into the Incident. The Otter Tail County Jail shall keep the DOC apprised as of any outcome of this investigation, including any findings made by the outside law firm the Otter Tail County Jail has engaged.

• Shall create a training plan and timeline to ensure all staff are given refresher/remedial training on the following topics:

1. Supervision of inmates

2. Response to resistance and tactics

3. Rights of inmates

4. Medical training/signs and symptoms of illness and knowledge of when to take further action

5. Recognition of signs/symptoms of mental illness;

6. Report writing; and Deprivation reporting.

The Otter Tail County Jail shall complete a full review of all facility policies and procedures to ensure those policies and procedures comply with Minnesota Rules chapter 2911 and shall complete a full review of chapter 2911 to ensure the facility is in compliance with its requirements. 

No later than April 15, the Otter Tail County Jail shall develop a plan to ensure that an incident similar to the one outlined in this order does not occur again. The Jail Administrator shall provide this plan to the DOC for approval upon its completion.

While operating under a Class I Facility license, random facility visits to ensure the facility’s ongoing compliance. 

Completion of the corrective actions ordered by the DOC and an approved plan to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future will allow the jail to resume normal operations and restore its license upon DOC approval.