116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Seven inmates have died while in custody at the Linn County Jail since 2020. The sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, has reviewed the deaths and found them to be unpreventable. We find the assessment alarming and see a system in need of major changes to prevent future deaths.
According to reporting by The Gazette’s Emily Andersen and Erin Jordan, two inmates took their own lives and two died of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Another died of complications from chronic substance abuse, another died from a bilateral pulmonary embolism and one inmate died of a drug overdose.
There were moments, in reviewing each of the reports, when it appears the cases could have ended differently. While after action reviews can determine whether policies were followed, they should also be done to find paths for improvement.
We believe Linn County should follow counterparts in Johnson and Scott County in having an outside agency, like the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, investigate jail deaths. We believe this change — instead of a review conducted by a detective in the department — will strengthen oversight, bring additional recommendations for process improvements, and avoid the possibility of conflicts of interest.
Families of inmates who died told The Gazette the Linn County facility doesn’t report deaths in a consistent manner. A policy to do so should be put in place immediately.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner is considering the purchase of a body scanner that would help jail staff detect any contraband being smuggled in by inmates. We support the idea, and the scanner should be installed as soon as possible.
We also strongly encourage the department review jail staffing levels and review whether the jail staff is providing consistent follow-up care to individuals of those asking or receiving medical or mental health services. Health screenings should be completed after initial court appearances for those inmates not being released on recognizance or supervision, not after a 72-hour wait.
While we recognize the above recommendations may carry price tags, so does defending the county's actions — or lack of actions — in litigation that can take years to resolve.
The state jail administrator, who is in charge of collecting information on jail deaths and conducts announced jail inspections, underreported the number deaths in Linn County and statewide. He never returned calls to explain why this happened. The lack of response should be addressed by the Iowa Department of Corrections officials. Additionally, the reporting system needs to be strengthened, with penalties for counties that fail to report deaths to the state.
Clearly, more can be done than simply slapping an “unpreventable” label on these cases. The sheriff’s office has an obligation to make the changes needed to make them preventable.
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