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Future of Johnson County Jail and Sheriff’s Office remains unclear

Johnson County Jail. (Gazette photo)

IOWA CITY — Concerns about planned jail capacity and the aging current facility continue to dominate conversations about the future of the jail and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors met Wednesday to discuss a space needs assessment for the jail and sheriff’s office, which was prepared by Cedar Rapids-based engineering and architecture firm Shive-Hattery.

In May, supervisors reviewed a partially completed space needs assessment that outlined plans for an $80 million facility with a 140-bed prison capacity.

Rendering of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Jail presented by Shive-Hattery to members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors on May 29, 2024. (Courtesy of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors)

At a meeting on May 29, Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz expressed concerns about the proposed 140-bed capacity at the jail at a time when local crime is on the decline.

On Wednesday, supervisors discussed the completed report for the first time, and Fixmer-Oraiz raised the same issues again, saying the report did not provide enough information on the methodology that led to the conclusion that the county would need 140 beds in the new jail.

“I think I fundamentally reject the report and appreciate all the work that was done, but I have serious concerns about some of the data,” Fixmer-Oraiz said.

Fixmer-Oraiz proposed that the new prison have no more than 83 beds — the same as the current facility — but ideally that number should be zero.

“We’re stalling here and no matter what they come back with, you’re still going to be in the same situation,” Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass told Fixmer-Oraiz.

Shive-Hattery officials said they would add information to the assessment regarding the methodology and data used to develop the proposal to build 140 beds.

Sheriff Brad Kunkel said the facility will be more than a jail. The assessment shows a building that will also have space for the sheriff’s administrative offices, investigative units and patrol needs.

Even if the jail had no inmates and those arrested were held outside the county, there would still be a need for a local detention center, Kunkel said.

“We have to get (the prisoners) back to the courthouse, hold them for a day or two, whatever it is, feed them, medicate them. So we would basically build a prison anyway and we would have to staff it,” Kunkel said.

The assessment included little information about the potential for expanding the existing facility, as Shive-Hattery does not consider that a “viable” solution. It did not identify a location for a potential new facility.

A structural report on the existing facility, completed last month by Axiom Consultants of Iowa City, identified a number of issues with the exterior wall and façade systems. The report said the building also showed signs of “incipient failure of some supporting structural elements.”

“We do not consider these issues to be life-threatening and require immediate repair, but they should be addressed as soon as possible because there is a risk they will become more serious and potentially progress more quickly,” Robert Decker, principal and owner of Axiom Consultants, wrote in the report.

County officials told The Gazette in 2022 that the current facility was overcrowded and posed a safety risk to both inmates and staff.

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel points out damage during a visit to the Johnson County Jail in December 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

“Civil rights are being violated in our jail every day, and there is a lack of space for inmates,” said Superintendent and Board Chairman Rod Sullivan.

County officials previously tried to fund jail improvements through bond referendums in 2012 and 2013. Both proposals received more than 50 percent voter approval, but needed 60 percent of the vote to pass.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss a zoning study and development plan for the jail and sheriff’s office at its Aug. 28 meeting.

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