Three Counties Want New Jails

Feb 24, 2020

Three Iowa counties with aging and overcrowded jails will ask residents next Tuesday to approve bonds for new law enforcement centers that house their jails, allowing them to add space to hold more inmates and upgrade infrastructure. 

Guthrie County Jail in west-central Iowa was built in 1963. The jail, in the basement of the county courthouse, was built to house 10 inmates.

“And we’ve been full for the last couple years,” Guthrie County Sheriff Marty Arganbright said in an interview Thursday. “We have to put them on the floor, inmates, when we can’t get them to another county.”

Arganbright said they have mats for inmates to sleep on until they can transport them to a nearby county, like Audubon or Boone. And bringing inmates to other county jails is expensive: often around $60 a day per inmate. 

About 100 miles northwest of Guthrie County, the Monona County Jail, which opened in 1974, has 12 beds.

In an interview Thursday, Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said there were 15 people in jail that day. The county held extra people in a holding cell. One inmate had to sleep on the floor. Pratt said his department was waiting to transfer that inmate out.

“Overcrowding, for sure, is definitely an issue the state is harping on us about to make sure we are not always over capacity,” Pratt said. 

Pratt added that there are 96 people who have been declared guilty of a charge and have been sentenced to jail, but because the jail has been full, they have been waiting to serve their sentences. They're required to call in weekly to see if there is a bed available for them. 

"Makes for an interesting Monday when they're all calling when to serve time," said Pratt, though he acknowledged not everyone calls in. The sheriff's office puts those who don't call in out to warrant and either makes room for them in the jail or transports them to another county.

After visits to the Monona and Guthrie County Jails last year, Iowa Department of Corrections Chief Jail Inspector Delbert Longley wrote to the chair of each county board of supervisors. The design of the Monona County Jail made it "nearly impossible" to classify and separate inmates, he concluded in a July 19 letter.

“These conditions create a serious safety, security, and liability concern for the prisoners, staff, Sheriff’s Office, Board of Supervisors, and citizens of Monona County."

Longley's letter to Guthrie County on July 2 was similar, calling it "difficult" to classify and separate inmates in the jail.

“The classification and separation of prisoners as required by IAC 201-50.13(1) is difficult due to the design of the jail.  Staff advises prisoners are moved to other facilities if the required separation of prisoners cannot be accomplished.”

In an interview with IPR, Longley said the Monona and Guthrie jails are older and smaller with open bars, kind of like the jails in old movies. They’re a problem because they allow inmates to communicate with each other.

Law enforcement also can’t properly separate inmates.

“You need to be able to separate by male and female, juvenile and adult, felons from those that’s charged with a crime, those that’s convicted with a crime...” Longley said.

State code requires this. It also requires that county jails separate inmates by sight and sound. Sheriff Pratt acknowledged that’s a big issue in his jail.

“We currently keep them sight away from each other, but because of the close proximity of the women’s cell to the men’s, that becomes an issue because they can still communicate through steel doors and hallways,” Sheriff Pratt said.

State code recommends that inmates be separated “whenever possible” by their crime classification, separating felonies from misdemeanors. Neither Guthrie nor Monona can do that in their current spaces.

Sheriff Arganbright of Guthrie County said a new jail would be able to classify inmates into five different categories. The current jail only has one. Monona County has the ability to classify inmates into three types, but a new jail would increase that to 10, Pratt said. 

Monona County residents on March 3 will vote on a $6.2 million bond for a new county public safety center. The new center would include 32 beds and seven 24-hour holding beds, as well as new jail and administration offices. The facility could be expanded to hold 66 beds in the future, Pratt said. The building would be located on the opposite side of the block from the current jail, in Onawa.

Guthrie County residents will vote March 3 whether to issue an $8.7 million bond for a 28-bed facility with the ability to expand. The facility would be in a separate building from the courthouse in Guthrie Center, but would be connected to the courthouse’s north doors, the county auditor’s office said. 

Woodbury County voters will also head to the polls on March 3, to vote whether to issue bonds on an estimated $50.3 million new county law enforcement center, including a jail that could hold 440 inmates and would have various administrative offices and courts. The current jail, which opened in 1987, holds 234 inmates and is often considered at or near capacity. Chief Deputy Tony Wingert said Monday that 210 inmates occupy the jail. 

The Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center is located in downtown Sioux City. Rocky De Witt, a county supervisor who is a member of the Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center Authority, the entity governing the new jail, said the best location for the new jail is on 28th St. west of U.S. Hwy 75 and east of Lewis Boulevard. 

The jail doesn’t have the same problem as Monona and Guthrie with classifying inmates, but like the other two jails, it’s often full or near full, and needs more space to hold more inmates. 

Delbert Longley, Iowa's chief jail inspector, said the problems with these three jails, particularly with overcrowding, are seen in "just about every jail in the state." He added that jails get a 24-hour use daily and tend to wear out over time.

"You may be in your home for 8, 10 hours a day," Longley said. "A jail has got those individuals on a 24-7 basis and they don't care about taking care of things like you do in your own home." 

If Guthrie, Monona and Woodbury County voters allow the bond issues to pass, property taxes would increase in all three counties. 

Editor's Note 02/24/2019: This story has been updated to correct the estimated cost of the Woodbury County Jail that residents will be voting on.