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Lancaster: New jail necessary

BY JACOB LANCASTER | JULY 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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Although I’m unsure if refreshments will be served, the county is now holding tours of the Johnson County Jail to gain support for the vote on Nov. 6 to pass the proposed building of a new $48.1 million criminal-justice center in Iowa City, as reported by the Gazette. Of that amount, Johnson County voters will be asked to cover $46.8 million with a bond, the rest being filled in with county money, according to the county supervisors.

Twice a week and once each weekend, Dave Wagner, the administrative captain of the Jail Division, will lead the tours starting in August.

“Well, I think the fact is that there’s probably been some misconceptions when you look at the jail,” he said. “I mean when you look at the building from the outside, people probably don’t see what’s going on inside the jail itself. In 1981, it was built for 46 prisoners, and recently, it’s been holding 150.”

This overcrowding has caused the overflow of Johnson County prisoners to be displaced in Linn, Cedar, Muscatine, Benton, Dubuque, Iowa, Washington, Jasper, and Marshall Counties. Not including the cost to transport the inmates, our county has spent $7,773,934.30 from August 2005 through June 2012 housing inmates in surrounding counties, according to the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.

Although I don’t think the tours are necessary, because CaptWagner is obviously adequately able to make the issue transparent enough without bringing volunteers into the jail, the new criminal-justice center is obviously a good financial decision for Johnson County citizens.

“In 2011, we spent $1,181,935 [housing inmates in nearby counties],” Wagner said.

He noted that the proposed criminal-justice center has been designed to hold 243 inmates.

The knee-jerk undergraduate reaction to this would be to assume the new criminal-justice center is being built to combat underage drinking, but public intoxication rates only counted for 8.1 percent of Johnson County jail-bed use, according to a 2008 report by the Sheriff’s Office. And since 2008, the number of public-intoxication arrests have gone down almost every year in Iowa City, according to the Iowa City arrest statistics.

The new criminal-justice center will be beneficial for citizens of Johnson County because our money will stay in our county, and the safety of our inmates and corrections officers will be greatly improved.

“The working conditions here are really inadequate,” Wagner said. “The control center is as old as the building here. The locking system is as old as building, and the parts are hard to come by. The isolation cells, we don’t have enough of them … I think staff efficiency will be greatly improved.”

A well-written press release could take the place of these tours, but, as long as the opportunity is presented, I’ll most likely take a tour myself. I never like to miss a good show … and, hell — the tickets are free.


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