116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A man spotted in town — while he was supposed to be serving time in the Buchanan County Jail — sparked a special state audit of the Independence facility that revealed scores of instances where inmates were released before their sentences were up or kept behind bars longer than ordered, records released Wednesday show.
According to a special investigations report from the State Auditor’s Office, an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spoke with the inmate who had been allowed to go into town on his own — but was taken back into custody — and to then-Buchanan County Jail Administrator Russell West to find out why.
“The explanation provided by both was Mr. West released the individual to seek dental services and a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ was reached instructing the individual to return to jail to serve the remainder of his jail sentence after he received the dental services he needed,” the report said.
As a result of that finding, the sheriff’s office placed West and jailer Tammy Steenbock on administrative leave in May 2020, the audit report said. Both later resigned. State Auditor Rob Sand began a review of jail operations for a period from July 1, 2018, to Aug. 13, 2020. It found:
- 104 instances where the jail time served was not recorded for the individual.
- 101 instances where an individual’s jail time served was less than the time sentenced by one or two days.
- 40 instances where an individual’s jail time served exceeded the time sentenced.
- Eight of the early releases were from four to 53 days early. “We determined these individuals were improperly released by the former Jail Administrator, Russell West, without an approved court order,” the state audit reported.
Additionally, Sand’s report said, there were 132 instances with insufficient data to tell if the inmate had properly served the jail time as sentenced.
West, responsible for supervising all Buchanan County Jail operations, including the intake, housing and release of prisoners, was placed on paid administrative leave May 14, 2020.
Steenbock, a sheriff’s deputy hired in May 1996, was responsible for room and board billings and maintaining the jail’s electronic inmate and accounting records. She was put on paid administrative leave May 19, 2020.
West and Steenbock resigned in June 2020.
“We identified billings to individuals for room and board for which the number of days billed did not agree with the number of days served,” Sand said in the report. Additionally, investigators were unable to determine if the funds collected were properly deposited into the county’s accounts because adequate records were not kept of those transactions.
The audit report notes that the DCI investigated the incidents and an agent interviewed West. “During the interview he reported it was not unusual to release inmates a day or two early, especially during the COVID pandemic. He also said inmates were released early to avoid releasing them late at night or at busy or inconvenient times. Mr. West provided specific reasons for releasing certain inmates prior to completion of their sentences,” the audit report said.
“For instance, he reported the inmate who needed the dental work ‘had been here for a long time and he was going to cut him loose.’ In another instance, an inmate helped settle a ‘problem inmate’ so Mr. West rewarded the inmate by letting him out early. He told DCI he did not think he was releasing ‘terrible people.’”
The audit report said the review found no indication that West or Steenbock personally benefited by releasing inmates early.
Copies of the audit report were filed with the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office, the state DCI, the Buchanan County Attorney’s Office and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. According to the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office, the jail can hold up to 46 inmates at a time.
Sand said in an interview that it’s up to Buchanan County to ensure procedures at the sheriff’s office are improved. The report made several recommendations.
“Our job is to make the public aware of issues like this, and then it's up to the county — whether it's the sheriff's office or the supervisors — to try to make sure that things are getting done correctly from here on out,” he told The Gazette on Wednesday.
“What we are looking at here is mismanagement,” he said. “And, at the end of the day, we need to make sure that we're using our checks and balances to protect everyone in this state.”
Buchanan County Sheriff Scott Buzynski could not be reached for comment.
Comments: (319) 398-8238; email@example.com.