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Corrections quandary: Linn, Johnson jails explore fates
Issues facing jails very different, but both would be costly
Johnson County’s jail is cramped and crumbling.
Linn County’s jail is in far better shape, but sits on island property coveted for years as a place for community gatherings and events.
Finding solutions for either would be costly. But conversations to address them — including whether the neighboring counties could ever work together — are on the cusp of starting.
Johnson County for years has weighed options for a new jail, as officials say its current facility at 511 S. Capitol St. is past its useful life. Conditions are taking a toll on inmates who face crowding, and staff who work in an outdated, cramped facility.
But Johnson County voters have been loath to approve money for a new facility, challenging county officials’ ability to find solutions.
To the north, Linn County officials don’t wrestle with the same urgent need to explore other jail locations, though when Cedar River waters rise, the May’s Island facility faces flooding challenges.
However, Cedar Rapids city officials have long viewed the Linn County Jail as an eyesore on prime land that they believe, if used differently, could present an economic development opportunity in the city’s urban core.
Because the Linn County Jail has decades of life left, conversations with county officials about the future location of the facility have never progressed far.
Still, local officials in both municipalities are exploring options for the future of their facilities.
Johnson jail ‘getting by’
The current Johnson County Jail opened in 1981 with a 46-inmate capacity. Not long after, the county started double-bunking inmates for a capacity of 92.
The facility was built when the Sheriff’s Office had about 50 full-time employees. Now, almost 100 full-time employees work out of a space designed for half as many.
Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said the space is too crowded for both inmates and staff, leaking pipes are a constant hazard and maintenance repairs are a Band-Aid.
“We’re not fixing anything — we're getting by,” Kunkel said.
There was a need for a new jail a decade ago, Kunkel said, and that need hasn’t gone away. In 2012 and 2013, Johnson County voters rejected bond measures for a new justice center that would have addressed the county’s aging jail and courthouse.
“We have a responsibility to make sure we have a safe facility for the staff and the inmates, and that's getting harder to do,” Kunkel said.
The conversation for a new jail — once it begins again — will look differently than it did over a decade ago, given new leadership on the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff’s Office and County Attorney’s Office. There also has been an increased focus on jail alternatives, Kunkel said.
The average daily population in the jail this year has been 88 inmates, which includes individuals in the Johnson County Jail, or incarcerated out of county or on electronic monitoring. Serious felonies — gun violence, sex crimes, homicide, serious assaults — are driving the jail population, Kunkel said.
Although the jail officially has 92 beds, that does not mean it can house 92 people, Kunkel said. The jail is seeing an increase in inmates with complex mental health needs or behavior problems, and the design is not ideal to address needs if someone must be held in solitary confinement.
“If they can't be housed in that room with somebody else, that is now a bed I can't use, so that's a bed that shifts to Henry, Lee or Clinton” county jails, Kunkel said.
Johnson County has spent $15 million since 2001 to house inmates out of county, which does not include transportation and staff costs. Most recently, in fiscal 2022 — the budget year spanning July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022 — it cost $459,105 to house inmates out of county, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Kunkel, who was a patrol sergeant when the referendums were being discussed, is wrapping up his second year of his first term as sheriff. He said “we have to talk about it, because the needs are getting worse.”
Kunkel said it will be a big undertaking that would require “getting people to the table who have a stake in it,” including the county attorney, defense attorneys and mental health providers.
There are lessons learned from the failed referendums that will be important to keep in mind once this conversation starts back up, Kunkel said, such as accurately informing voters about why a new facility is needed.
One of the reasons Kunkel believes the last referendums didn’t pass was because of misinformation about the jail population. Kunkel said there was false information shared about how college students and marijuana charges are making the jail crowded.
“In the end, it’s their decision,” Kunkel said of rallying support from voters who decide on the fate of another potential referendum.
Rod Sullivan, the only member of the Board of Supervisors who was in office during the failed referendums, said he continues to have concerns about the conditions for inmates and staff.
“The time long ago passed where it was an adequate facility — that's not in question — it's just a matter how you solve the problem, and we haven't been able to do so,” Sullivan said.
Supervisor Jon Green said the current facility is “functionally obsolete,” as well as a “danger to both those who work there and temporarily reside there.” Green said he wants a facility that is safe and meets the needs of Johnson County.
“I want it to be the correct size,” Green said. “If we build so many beds, we're going to find a way to fill them, whether it's jailing more people here locally or accepting overflow transfers from other counties. I don't want us to do that.”
Kunkel said an updated assessment should be done to look at the state of the system in Johnson County and the alternative services available, which he said have grown significantly.
In addition to jail alternatives, there is a social worker employed in the Sheriff’s Office, a full-time nurse works in the jail and the county last year opened the GuideLink Center.
“That's something to be proud of, not only in what local government is doing but the nonprofit world and the medical community,” Kunkel said. “Everybody has stepped up to do more.”
Linn jail has ‘decades' left
The Linn County correctional center was built on May's Island in 1984 and is a 401-bed facility that houses inmates awaiting trial and serving time for state, county and municipal offenses. The jail also houses overflow inmates for other jurisdictions and federal inmates awaiting trial.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said on an average day, the facility’s inmate roster far exceeds 300.
With decades of life still in the jail, the county has been in a position to invest in improvements to the facility in recent years.
The Linn County Jail is using $1.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to fund the creation of 12 to 14 special cells designed to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases, or for any other medical reason requiring an inmate to be isolated. The Linn County Board of Supervisors awarded the jail federal American Rescue Plan Act money in October.
Being right by the Cedar River, the jail has flooded a few times over the years, most significantly during the 2008 flood. During that time, inmates were evacuated and taken to the Anamosa State Penitentiary, the Washington County Jail and Mitchellville’s women’s state penitentiary.
Since then, the county undertook a major remodeling project, which included moving the HVAC, electrical, computer and phone system technology from the first floor to the upper floors.
“In 2008, we lost the backup generator, door controllers, computer systems, phone system,” Gardner said.
That prompted the county to move essential equipment and infrastructure to the second and third floors of the three-story structure. With the first floor now mostly being arraignment cells and administrative holding cells, the county officials said they aren’t too concerned with flooding.
To protect the facility, the county would rely on temporary sand barriers, as May’s Island doesn’t have other flood protection.
“We would utilize our flood insurance in the event of another flood of that magnitude. If for some reason insurance didn’t cover the damages because of deductibles not being met or if there were items not covered completely in the policy, we could submit it to (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) for consideration,” County Risk Manager Steve Estenson said.
Given the recent investments in the jail and the years still left in it, county officials have little interest in moving the facility.
A 2017 Vision Downtown report outlining priorities to guide future changes to Cedar Rapids’ core identified moving the jail off the island as an opportunity to instead offer community events and gathering space that attract residents and visitors.
“The location of the jail on the island is not ideal for the ‘big idea’ of making this a premiere public events space,” the report said, recommending that initial steps be taken to consider in the long run moving the courthouse functions and jail off of the island.
Work is underway to update the Vision Downtown report. Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said she supports many of the ideas in the existing plan and is eager to see new ideas emerge as the report is refreshed.
“There is a palpable excitement for the types of recreational amenities, entertainment options and lifestyle developments that are starting to spring up along our downtown riverfront,” she said.
Noting the idea to relocate the jail as part of an effort to activate the historic island, O’Donnell said “this goal has reverberated in past plans for downtown and will become an increasingly worthy effort as reinvestment continues along the Cedar River.”
Gardner said he didn’t have a cost estimate for building a new jail. But if another facility were built, he said local officials — mainly with the city — would need to find a way to afford that without burdening taxpayers.
Linn County Supervisor Chair Ben Rogers said county officials are open to any conversations about the facility’s future, but he agreed it would be a massive logistical and financial undertaking.
“We know the jail is an impediment of some economic growth downtown, but I don’t know if taxpayers will want to build a new jail just so downtown can look a little better,” Rogers said. “We have decades of use left, but we will have to have a conversation about that at some point.”
Is a joint jail feasible?
Gardner said earlier in his career, there was some discussion of co-locating a jail on the Linn-Johnson county line, but those talks fell to the wayside quickly.
“The reality is, if you’re going to replace it, you’re probably going to build it larger,” Gardner said.
Rogers agreed with Gardner that the county would need the city as a partner to help locate a new site and dollars to make it happen. He said there is an opportunity for all three entities — the city and both counties — to have this conversation, but the cost would be exponential.
“If there was a need with Johnson County, we could look to partner, but building a jail is not cheap and we would most likely have to pass a bond vote,” Rogers said.
As of now, Kunkel isn’t interested in pursuing a joint facility with Linn County and does not think a joint facility would solve the challenges facing Johnson County.
Managing court appearances in two different jurisdictions and transporting people back and forth on Interstate 380 “would be a logistical nightmare,” Kunkel said.
“You're going to exacerbate transportation and logistical problems and just make it very inefficient,” Kunkel said.
Every transport exposes the county, staff and inmates to risk, Kunkel said. That risk can be reduced when individuals are being kept in Johnson County.
“Your greatest risk for an escape or an assault attempt is going to be when you remove somebody from the physical custody of your building,” Kunkel said. “Whether it's taking them to court or transporting them elsewhere, you're now increasing your risk of an escape attempt or an assault or even a traffic crash. And we're liable for that if something happens.”
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