Johnson County justice center opponents focus on spork arrest

Some point to incident as example of 'pointless' arrests that lead to jail overcrowding

Gregg Hennigan
Published: April 9 2013 | 2:58 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 1:49 pm in

Spork the jail.

That’s the new rallying cry of opponents of the proposed Johnson County criminal justice center.

It comes after a Johnson County Jail inmate was arrested Sunday for breaking her plastic spork – which is a combination fork and spoon – after dinner.

The charge of fifth-degree criminal mischief, a simple misdemeanor, was dropped Tuesday against Tera G. Harris, 25, of North Liberty. But the incident is being cited by some people as an example of what they see as pointless arrests that are contributing to jail overcrowding.

Donald Baxter of University Heights designed a “Spork the Jail” graphic, posted it on Facebook and hopes people print it out for signs to display. He acknowledged he’s having fun, but insists there’s also a serious point being made.

“A lot of us who are opposed to the jail feel that Johnson County, and perhaps Iowa City in particular, is an over-policed environment,” he said.

A May 7 special election is scheduled for a $43.5 million bond issue to pay for the justice center, which would include a new 195-bed jail and court space in a building behind the existing county courthouse just south of downtown Iowa City. County officials say the jail and courthouse are overcrowded and unsafe.

And with a tight vote expected, nothing can be too trivial, even an incident involving a multipurpose eating utensil. A slightly more expensive justice center proposal failed last November, with 56 percent of voters for it, but 60 percent needed to pass.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said Tuesday that “an error in judgment” was made by the deputies who arrested Harris for breaking the spork.

“Even though that is in fact illegal, the decision should have been made to deal with it through the prisoner discipline procedure we have internally instead,” he said.

Harris was booked into the jail Sunday on allegations of shoplifting and trespassing at Scheels at Coral Ridge Mall.

Pulkrabek said she was disruptive at dinner, threw food and broke her spork but denied doing it intentionally. He said deputies reviewed video and saw it clearly was on purpose and chose to arrest her.

Video provided by the Sheriff's Office shows Harris tossing her cup in a sink, apparently throwing food one time and snapping her spork on her tray while seated on a bed in a cell.

The sporks cost $15.99 for a package of three dozen, according to a criminal complaint. Pulkrabek said they are made for institutional use and are supposed to be nearly unbreakable.

Pulkrabek denied any connection between the spork arrest and overcrowding. Harris made an initial appearance and was released on the criminal mischief charge but remained in jail Tuesday on the other charges.

“Clearly it has no effect on the jail overcrowding because she was released on that charge and held on the other charges anyway,” Pulkrabek said

The arrest was being criticized on an anti-justice center Facebook page, however.

“Petty. Petty. Petty. Petty. I mean, petty. Like in ‘why bother’ with something so petty?” Carol deProsse of Iowa City wrote.

Baxter said the charges being dropped don’t change the underlying issue that someone was arrested for breaking a plastic utensil.

“I don’t see myself pulling the graphic,” he said. “It’s still funny.”

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