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Audit: Buchanan County Jail Holding Some Inmates Too Long, Releasing Others Too Early

A cell at New York's Rikers Island jail. About 1,000 people die in American jails every year, and about a third of those are suicides.
Seth Wenig/AP
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A cell at New York's Rikers Island jail.

A state audit has found that officers at the Buchanan County Jail improperly held dozens of inmates for too long and released others too soon, without a court order or other adequate authorization. The review of the jail came after the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation began looking into the facility.

In more than 100 instances, inmates at the Buchanan County Jail were released a day or two early, without a “reasonable explanation," according to a special audit released Wednesday by the office of State Auditor Rob Sand.

In 40 cases, the jail continued to detain inmates after they completed their sentences. Due to a lack of records, auditors weren’t able to determine whether the additional time served was due to a separate charge or “another explanation."

In more than 100 instances, auditors couldn’t tell how long someone served because of inadequate recordkeeping.

The inconsistencies in time sentenced and time served as well as incomplete financial records also call into question whether the jail is adequately billing inmates and properly depositing funds with the county.

The audit notes that 42 receipts totaling some $41,580 “were not listed on the cash inflow sheets” maintained for the receipts.

“[T]he County jail did not maintain a complete listing of billings and/or receipts,” the report reads in part. “As a result, we are unable to determine if all amounts were properly billed, collected, and/or deposited into the County’s accounts.”

As a result of the DCI investigation, Jail Administrator Russell West and Jailer Tammy Steenbock were placed on administrative leave in May of 2020. Each submitted their resignations in June of 2020.

According to the audit, Steenbock was responsible for billing room and board charges and for maintaining the electronic inmate records and accounting documents. She would also change information in inmates’ electronic records “at the direction of Mr. West."

According to the audit, in interviews with DCI agents, West said it was not unusual for inmates to be released a day or two early, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, or to change the date for a time that was less busy or more convenient.

In the instance of one inmate, West stated that they struck a “gentlemen’s agreement” for the man to leave the jail to receive dental treatment and then return to finish his sentence. In another case, West released an individual early as a reward after he had helped settle a “problem inmate." West did not think he was releasing “terrible people," according to the report.

In an interview with a DCI agent, Steenbock stated she also instructed another employee to “record the days sentenced rather than the days served” when inmates were being released early.

The audit does not detail why some inmates were still detained after they had completed their sentences.

Auditors “did not identify any indication Mr. West or Ms. Steenbock personally benefitted” from releasing certain individuals early.

A search of Iowa court records Wednesday did not reveal any filings against West or Steenbock related to the investigation.

Buchanan County Sheriff Scott Buzynski, who took office in January of 2021, after the investigation was already underway, did not return a call requesting comment on the findings.

The audit recommends the sheriff’s office strengthen its internal controls, including ensuring that adequate records are maintained.