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In all the years since the Hennepin County workhouse for short-term inmates was built in Plymouth in 1931, the facility's infrastructure has never been significantly improved.

The sanitary and water pipes to the hundreds of cells have remained untouched. Ineffective ventilation results in unsafe moisture on floors, and cell beds haven't been replaced in 50 years. The cells don't have fire sprinklers.

That should change, now that the County Board has approved $17 million to make major upgrades at the aging facility. The three-year project will be completed in eight phases without disruption to staffers and inmates.

In a separate project, the workhouse also will start using solar power to produce 33% of the electric load.

"The entire improvement project is about the well-being and safety of the people in our care," said Sean Chapman, superintendent of the workhouse since 2014. "The work needs to be done to extend the life of the facility."

The workhouse, formally known as the Adult Corrections Facility, provides custody and programming for up to a year for people convicted of felonies, misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. It has 399 beds in the men's section and 78 beds in the women's section.

The upgrade project has been in the works for five years. The improvements will be made in the two men's block buildings, which are much older than the other parts of the workhouse.

Bids for the project went out this winter, and five of six came in within the county's budget, said project manager Jeff Houle. Nearly half the work will be handled by Go Fetch Mechanical, a Minneapolis company owned by Native American women that hits a diversity contract priority for the county, he said.

"I'm pleased that this company has a significant role in this project," Commissioner Angela Conley said at a board meeting last month. "We have goals around larger contracts going out to minority-owned businesses, but I would like to see the number increase."

The major piece of the workhouse project will be replacing piping to the cells in the men's buildings, three-story brick and mortar structures that have linear cellblocks. The plumbing has failed a few times over the years, forcing inmates to move and disrupting their care, said Chapman.

The new ventilation system will prevent the buildup of moisture from humidity on walls and floors, said Houle. The floors sometimes become slippery, a safety issue for staffers, inmates and volunteers. "This would happen in spring, summer and fall," he said.

New cell windows will be more energy efficient and provide good daylight, Houle said. LED lights will also be installed.

Although cells are constructed with noncombustible concrete, the improvement project includes fire sprinklers. There is very little fuel in the facility and inmates aren't allowed to have matches, lighters or anything flammable, Houle said.

Two new isolation cells with separate ventilation systems are included in the project. They can be used for an inmate who needs to remain away from the rest of the population because of COVID-19 or another virus, he said.

The workhouse will spend up to $1.6 million over the next 20 years on the solar energy project and buy electricity from Innovative Power Systems. It's an ideal place for solar energy because it has unused space to place ground solar panels, said Margo Geffen, Hennepin County's facility services director. Over the span of the contract, the county will save an estimated $100,000 on electricity costs, she said.

"It will reduce our use of fossil fuels and that is beneficial for everyone involved," Chapman said.

Fifty cells will be worked on at a time, said Houle. There will be significant challenges in providing services and programs and continuing inmate visitation, access to telephones and recreation time, Chapman said.

It will also be important to ensure a safe environment for workers, he said.

"We plan on being fully operational during this project," said Chapman. "There would have been challenges to relocate hundreds of inmates or closing the facility wasn't an option."

At the board meeting last month, Commissioner Debbie Goettel said people may think $17 million is an astronomical price tag for the project. But it would cost far more to build a new facility, she said.

"The old plumbing is a disaster waiting to happen," she said. "Making it livable and up to code will make it easier to make renovations in the future."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465