Officials hope jail remodeling will improve safety, efficiency


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The Johnson County Jail is getting a facelift — but officials said the “quick fix” will only temporarily help address the overcrowding problem the facility has faced for years.

The change comes after the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved a $455,000 bid to remodel the jail earlier this month in hopes of improving safety, efficiency, and getting officers back on the street more quickly after an arrest.

“This is a Band-Aid solution to, quite frankly, a fairly gaping wound that really is a problem in our community,” said Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, noting that the facility is built for 46 people in a county that’s now the fourth largest in the state.

Officials said the money will be used to reclaim empty space created by the opening of the Joint Communication Center. The space previously occupied by the dispatch office will become holding cells.

The construction — set to begin within the next 30 to 45 days — will also decrease the size of the lobby to relocate the booking area, make room to accommodate a new emergency-response vehicle, and eliminate waste pipes in the ceiling.

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Even though officials are optimistic they will be able to pass a bond referendum for a new $50 million to $54 million justice center in 2012, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said the jail’s overcrowding and efficiency issues hamper law enforcement officers both in the building and on the street.

“It’s not uncommon on busy weekends to have five, six, seven squad cars parked out front waiting to bring someone in who’s been arrested because we can only book one person at a time,” Pulkrabek said. “We hope that our increased efficiency will in turn help the arresting agency’s efficiency.”

Iowa City police Sgt. Zach Diersen also acknowledged the issue.

“The fewer officers we have waiting on the jail, the more officers we have to take calls and do more active stuff,” Diersen said. “Sometimes when we’re held up at the jail, that decreases our effectiveness.”

The format of the jail also poses a safety issue for jail staff, because many inmates are crowded into the lobby waiting to be checked in. Pulkrabek said the construction would allow officials to book three inmates — instead of one — at a time.

While Johnson County facilities manager David Kempf said the county has set aside the money for the project by budgeting for it over the last two years, Pulkrabek said he believes the construction will allow the county to recoup the money.

With the current facility, holding cells fill up quickly, which hinders officials from sorting inmates appropriately, and overcrowding often forces the department to move them out of the county to make space — a practice the department budgeted $1.3 million for this fiscal year.

Pulkrabek said the cost of transportation, extra staff to drive the vehicles and maintenance on the cars adds $100,000 to that cost, and the new accommodations would prevent the need to move so many inmates.

Kempf said construction is expected to end in mid-August, just before football season.

But even if the project for the justice center doesn’t pass next year, Pulkrabek said the proposed construction will help to alleviate the crowding, efficiency, and safety issues.

“If it fails, we’ll still have this [facility], and it will be a good investment,” Pulkrabek said.

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