WILLMAR - As the Kandiyohi County Jail increasingly becomes a place of last resort for the mentally ill, the county wants to move forward with a renovation to better meet the needs of this population.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners authorized a request Tuesday to seek proposals for the addition of five more holding cells.

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It's the first step in what's likely to be a long process with several decision points along the way.

There are no cost estimates yet, and only a preliminary sketch for how all the components might come together. The County Board's action clears the way for an architectural engineer to come on board and begin working with jail and county officials to develop a more concrete plan, along with estimates on how much it might cost.

It's something that has been needed for a long time, said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien.

At any given time, an estimated 20 percent of the American population is dealing with a mental health issue, he said.

Often, mental health and law enforcement are intertwined and people inevitably end up in jail, he told the County Board Tuesday.

Holien estimated that about 10 percent of the men and 30 percent of the women entering the jail have some sort of mental health issue.

They might spend two months in a holding cell, waiting for the outcome of a Rule 20 evaluation to determine whether they're competent for criminal proceedings, said Matt Akerson, jail administrator.

"For 60 days people are living in these tanks," he said.

Although the jail has medical staff on site and prisoners with mental health issues are monitored for safety, the situation is an ongoing challenge for the jail, Holien and Akerson said.

"We just don't have room to hold these people," Akerson said.

A preliminary proposal calls for five more holding cells, plus an expansion of the jail's sally port where prisoners enter and exit.

A second booking area also would be created, allowing the jail staff to process prisoners more quickly and efficiently.

The County Board was unanimous in supporting the request for the proposals phase of the project.

It's "absolutely prudent" to start planning for some of the jail's most urgent needs, said Commissioner Harlan Madsen.

The issue isn't new. "This is something we've been talking about for several years now," said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

Members of the County Board saw the situation firsthand last fall during a tour of the jail.

It's a reflection of the overall state of a mental health system that has an acute shortage of treatment beds and often puts law enforcement on the front lines of handling mental health crises in the community, Holien said.

It's something that wasn't foreseen or prepared for, and the Kandiyohi County Jail now must respond, he said. "We have to look out for their best interests while they're in our care and custody."

Actual construction for the project probably won't happen until late in 2020, Kleindl said. "This planning stage is going to take some time," he said.

Some of the County Commissioners raised the question Tuesday about planning for the long term.

"Are we just meeting the needs or are we going to have enough space for 10 years out? Because there seems to be a trend," said Roger Imdieke.

Rollie Nissen, board chairman, issued a call to legislators to do more to address mental health in Minnesota's jails.

"We cannot solve it without state action," he said. "People who are mentally ill should not be in the jail in the first place."