IOWA CITY — Johnson County is hoping to get people to vote for a new criminal justice center by putting them in jail.
The Sheriff’s Office started giving public tours of the county jail Aug. 7 and 9, 2012. The intent is to show why a new facility is needed to replace a jail that was built to house 46 inmates but now holds 92, with dozens more kept at other county jails.
A $46.8 million bond issue for a justice center, which would include a new jail and court space, will be on the November general election ballot. The facility’s estimated cost is $48.1 million, and the county’s supervisors have said they would use county money to cover the rest of the amount.
Capt. Dave Wagner, Johnson County Jail administrator, had a simple answer when asked why it was a worthwhile project.
“Well,” he said, “it’s public safety.”
The current design calls for a five-level, 153,800-square-foot building constructed behind the courthouse at 417 S. Clinton St. in Iowa City. The current jail is across the street diagonally.
It would include a 243-bed jail, the Sheriff’s Office headquarters, six more courtrooms, a new Clerk of Court office and room for other court-related functions, like judge chambers. The courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, would continue to be used.
County officials have said for years that the jail and the courthouse are unsafe and overcrowded.
The jail opened in 1981 with a 46-inmate capacity. As Johnson County’s population grew, so did the number of people arrested, and the county started double-bunking inmates in 1990, Wagner said.
Cells are in two long hallways on the jail’s second floor — a linear design that Wagner said makes it harder to monitor inmates.
A look inside C block, which is a maximum-security area, showed four cells, each containing bunk beds so eight people total can be held. A small metal desk, toilet and sink are in each cell.
Immediately outside the cells is a small day room where inmates can spend time when they are not in lockdown overnight. There is a flat-screen television on the wall, a four-seat table, decks of cards, reading material and a wall-mounted phone.
Wagner said that before the county started sending overflow inmates out of county a decade ago, some cells held three people, with the extra person sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
In fiscal 2012, the average daily inmate population was 156. The county spent nearly $1.2 million that year to house inmates in other county jails. That figure does not include transportation costs.
A few years ago county officials said it was still cheaper to send extra inmates elsewhere than to build a new jail. As the inmate population has grown, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said that’s now arguable. Regardless, he said, using other jails is a short-term solution.
Wagner said the jail is squeezed for space beyond just the cell blocks.
After a bond issue for a new jail failed in 2000 — with 65 percent of voters opposed — an exercise room was divided and is now used as a holding cell on one side and a staff dining room and kitchen storage on the other.
Three exercise bikes are kept in a room where meetings also occur. That room had been a library.
The possessions of inmates who are held out of county are stored in what is basically the garage, with dozens of bags hanging from racks.
Rex Pruess, 61, of Iowa City, went on a tour Tuesday. He found the conditions so cramped he said he was surprised the jail is not in violation of some regulations.
The jail is inspected by the state annually. Wagner said the inspector says the county must continue to ship out extra inmates to keep a proper balance of the types of inmates, based on the seriousness of their crimes, housed at the jail.
Pruess said he’ll be voting in favor of the justice center bond.
“In my opinion, that jail is beyond its life,” he said. “It’s had it.”
Some county officials have said that despite what they believe are obvious needs at the jail and courthouse, they believe it will be tough to get the 60 percent approval the bond needs to pass.
Another tour member shows why. Bill Stockman, 65, of rural Oxford, said that after seeing the inside of the jail, he has no doubt it has space and security issues, but he questions whether 243 beds are needed and whether the county has sacrificed enough in other areas to find the money.
He didn’t want to share how he’ll vote, but he said of the justice center: “As a taxpayer, it seems extravagant, in my opinion.”
Pulkrabek said based on projections, the 243-bed jail should meet the county’s demands for the next 15 to 25 years and would be able to be expanded. He said via email that it’s important to note that “we are trying to use some vision and think long-term for the needs and growth of the county.”
Justice center supporters are quick to name shortcomings at the courthouse, too. It does not have metal detectors because of a cramped entrance, attorneys often speak with their clients in the hallways because of a lack of meeting rooms, judges say their chambers are not secure and more courtrooms are needed.