Inside the Johnson County Jail

May 6, 2013

The Johnson County Justice Center in downtown Iowa City.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren / Iowa Public Radio

As jail administrator Dave Wagner walks through the Johnson County Jail, he points out mats in a group holding cell that can be rolled out for inmates to sleep on temporarily when there aren’t enough beds.

"We could have 15 in here, whatever space we have on the floor, we would use," he said. The space is only intended for eight people.

The average daily population of the jail has more than tripled since it opened in 1981, but the building has stayed the same size. Johnson County residents are voting Tuesday on a $43.5 million bond issue to build a new justice center in downtown Iowa City. A similar, but more expensive proposal was voted down in November.

To double the capacity of the old jail, Wagner says they've installed bunk beds and converted administrative space into extra cells.

"It did not improve our storage facilities, it did not improve the working conditions, safety issues for the staff. None of that has improved. We’ve made do with what we’ve got."

At one time the jail became so crowded that inmates were sleeping three to a cell—one in each bunk, and one on a mattress on the floor. Retired University of Iowa professor John Neff, who had been studying the jail, looked at how high daily populations lead to more fights between prisoners.

"There was a threshold. Below a certain population of the jail, there were practically no assaults. Above a certain threshold, there were lots of them. It’s because of the crowding," he said.

Neff says the bond issue debate boils down to this:

"We’re spending too much money on incarceration, the jail is too small. By any measure the courthouse is inadequate. I think almost everyone would agree on that. What they don’t agree on is whether we’ve found the most cost-effective solution."

Meanwhile, to avoid overcrowding, the jail sends prisoners out of county to be held temporarily.

Muscatine County charges about $42 a day to house an inmate in their justice center. That’s actually less expensive than keeping them in Johnson County… about $30 less.  

But inmate numbers aren’t going down. In fact, many are staying for longer. Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness says that’s an effect of a slow-down of the court system due to state budget cuts and space constraints.

"We are having to postpone hearings, trials until we can get a judge there. We can only schedule so many cases on one particular day, there are only so many courtrooms for judges to hear the cases in, so we have a longer delay than I think in other places," Lyness said.

In Johnson County, the percentage of felony cases lasting longer than a year has held steady at about twice the state average of 12 percent.  

Now, there are more than 50 Johnson County inmates housed in Muscatine County, accounting for about a third of Johnson County’s total inmates.

One former inmate who would only speak anonymously for privacy concerns, was transferred to Marshall County back in 2009. Jailers told him it would just be the weekend.

"I was there for 22 days. I didn’t understand why I was still there," he said.

When they’re held out of county, it can be harder for inmates to access their attorneys. If they have a court date, they’re bussed back. The schedule is a careful dance coordinated by two full time staff members.

Other  inmates told the interviewee that being held out of county made it hard to see their families.

"It was very difficult for their next of kin to visit because of the distance involved, many of their families did not have personal vehicles and relied on mass transit," he said.

But he says that if he could vote tomorrow, he would vote against the bond issue.

"As a resident of rural Johnson County and a taxpayer, I think it’s an Iowa City problem. If Iowa City is making the bulk of the arrests.”                

Instead, he says he hopes more money is put towards mental health rehabilitation and jail alternative programs.

The $43.5 million bond issue for a new jail and expanded courthouse requires a 60 percent ‘yes’ vote to pass Tuesday.