IOWA CITY– In November, Johnson County voters will see a bond referendum on the ballot to fund a new criminal justice center to replace the existing sheriff’s office, jail and courthouse. The board of supervisors will be asking the taxpayers for $46.8 million while dipping into reserves for the balance of the $4.8 million (estimated) project.
As part of a campaign to make the case for the new combined facility, the board arranged a tour of the jail and courthouse for the quarterly meeting of local governments, held June 20 in Iowa City. Supervisor Rod Sullivan explained why.
“It was our turn (the Johnson County Board of Supervisors) to host, and we thought, ‘we keep talking about this, let’s just show them.’” Captain Dave Wagner, jail administrator, led the tour starting from the lobby of the sheriff’s department, up the elevator used to bring inmates into the facility, and to the intake area. Prisoners coming into the jail and those being released or transferred elsewhere frequently cross paths in this area.
“We’re walking over ourselves,” Captain Wagner said.
The current jail was built in 1981 with a designed capacity of 46. Renovations and other strategies such as re-purposing various spaces have made it possible to house 92. A comfortable– or preferred– census is around 72, Wagner said. However, on the day of the tour, the county was responsible for 180 inmates, with 92 staying in-house. The overflow inmates were sitting in the Muscatine County Jail, the Washington County Jail, and two juvenile offenders were cooling their heels in the Iowa County Jail. The Johnson County Jail does not have the separate facilities available to keep juveniles away from adult offenders.
As part of the county’s agreement with Muscatine County, Muscatine jail staff run a shuttle van once each day bringing prisoners in who are to be released or who have a court appearance the next day. The trip back to Muscatine takes overflow inmates. When inmates miss the ride, or have to come back to Iowa City after the daily run, Johnson County deputies must go get them. Deputies assigned to the jail are also responsible for taking inmates to hospitals, mental health facilities and to their court appearances. The jail is set up for video conferencing so inmates can make their initial appearances before a judge by a two-way video and audio link, and a judge will actually come to the jail for simple cases.
But Sullivan said waiting to see the judge is part of the overcrowding problem.
“If you can’t see a judge for seven days (due to a variety of reasons), you sit here,” Sullivan said.
Overcrowding is also an issue for storage in the jail, as each inmate’s personal belongings have to be stored securely. Captain Wagner explained the items are placed in a bag and shrink-wrapped to reduce space. A storage area next to the intake center is stuffed, resulting in bags stored in the garage, which also serves as the sally port for bringing prisoners into and out of the jail, as well as the parking spot for the sheriff’s rescue truck.
Captain Wagner showed a former library that was turned into a multi-function room housing three exercise bikes– the jail is mandated to provide out-of-cell exercise, but inmates do not have to take advantage of the opportunity– and a small conference table. The room is used by MECCA for substance abuse evaluations as well as some attorney/client meetings. Another multi-purpose room is used for additional attorney/client meetings, video court, ministers, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, batterers’ education classes and taking depositions.
Jail deputies are required to make physical checks on inmates at regularly scheduled intervals and conduct random searches for contraband items. The cell blocks are located along narrow corridors. While cameras are seemingly everywhere and monitored from a central control room, it is a less-than-ideal situation. The proposed new facility would have multiple control rooms with more open cell blocks arranged in such a way that fewer staff are able to more fully monitor the inmates.
A lack of space, overcrowding and security issues were also front-and-center as the group toured the courthouse, especially in the clerk of courts offices. The office is responsible for maintaining a vast number of records with limited storage space. Working files are kept in the clerk’s office while other cases are stored in at least three other places, including an old stone garage behind the courthouse, in a second floor loft space. Additional files and evidence are stored in the basement while still more files are housed in a secondary roads facility.
“We are completely out of space,” said County Attorney Janet Lyness. Additional courtrooms in the new structure would ease scheduling of court cases, and could lead to the appointment of an additional judge, for which Lyness said the county is eligible due to its population.
If built, the new justice center would encompass the sheriff’s office, jail, court support, clerk of courts and additional courtrooms in 153,800 total gross square feet. The facility would have five floors with a secure bridge connecting the building to the existing courthouse. Six new courtrooms would supplement three in the original courthouse while the jail portion would be built to house up to 243 inmates.