Public Safety

Johnson County now sending inmates to Lee and Louisa counties

Lee County is a 90-minute trip from Iowa City

A phone for inmate usage is shown in a cell block at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. (Gazette photo)
A phone for inmate usage is shown in a cell block at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. (Gazette photo)

IOWA CITY — You’ll have to drive nearly to Missouri to visit some of the inmates under the care of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the 122 inmates on the Johnson County Jail Roster Tuesday morning, 10 of them are being housed at the Lee County Jail. Located in Montrose, the jail is roughly 90 miles from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

An additional three inmates are being housed in the Louisa County Jail, which is approximately an hour away. The remainder are split between Johnson and Muscatine counties. Muscatine County — about 45 minutes away — has housed Johnson County’s overflow for a number of years.

“Essentially what has happened is our numbers were going down at Muscatine for a bit,” said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. “Muscatine started looking for other opportunities, you could say.”

Muscatine charges the county $55 per inmate, per day. Lee and Louisa counties both charge $50 per inmate, per day, Pulkrabek said.

However, Pulkrabek said the daily jail population has been creeping up lately, requiring a need for more beds. The jail has a capacity of 92, but Pulkrabek said they try to keep it around 65-70 inmates to allow for the coming and going of inmates. While that’s not an issue when the jail population is low, Pulkrabek said it has been creeping up recently.

With fewer beds available in Muscatine County, that meant Johnson County had to go looking elsewhere. A couple of weeks ago, a captain in the jail told Pulkrabek he was having difficulty finding beds for their overflow.

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“I think they checked with some other neighboring counties and they didn’t have any room,” Pulkrabek said. “We knew we were venturing a couple counties away, at least.”

The sheriff’s office has faced this situation before, but on a greater magnitude.

“When I first took over (in 2005), we hit a point in time where we have inmates in five different jails,” Pulkrabek recalls. “They all filled up. We struggled to find places to put people.”

Eventually, Polk County opened a new facility and took some of the pressure off other jails. For a time, all of Johnson County’s overflow went to Marshall County. When Muscatine County opened up a new section for their jail, they recruited Johnson County to send their extra inmates there.

Pulkrabek described managing inmates in four facilities as a “daily, constant logistics process.”

“It’s a full-time job just managing the logistics of who is where and where do they need to be and when do they need to be there,” he said. “There’s somebody doing that all day long.”

By housing inmates outside of the county, other issues arise, Pulkrabek said. He noted access to legal county, legal liability during inmate transports and the ability for families to see their loved ones while they’re in custody.

As for the uptick in jail population, Pulkrabek said he isn’t aware of anything driving those numbers, but he does get the sense more crimes are being committed and more criminals are being caught.

“It was a foregone conclusion we knew our jail numbers would not be able to stay as low as they had been,” he said. “We’re just too big of a county.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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