Shipping inmates- and millions of dollars -out of the county

Written by
Lee Hermiston
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Since 2001, nearly every county that borders Johnson — Linn, Iowa, Washington, Cedar and Muscatine — has built a new jail or justice center or has added on to and improved its existing jail.

And Johnson County Board of Supervisors chairman Rod Sullivan says taxpayers here have helped pay for those projects.

“We’ve been paying all of those counties to house prisoners for years,” Sullivan said. “I know in each of those counties, the new facilities were funded, in part, by the money they had from Johnson County.”

During the same time, Johnson County has spent more than $7.7 million to house inmates in other county jails. That amount doesn’t include the $327,523 spent since fiscal year 2005 to transport inmates to the various facilities across the state.

Costs to house inmates elsewhere have totaled more than $1 million annually since FY2010. It’s an expense the county must pay as long as inmates outnumber the 92 beds in the Johnson County Jail.

In November, Johnson County voters will be asked to decide on a $46.8 million bond referendum to fund a new justice center, which would include a 243-bed jail, new sheriff’s office and six new courtrooms. If approved, the county will contribute $1.3 million toward the $48.1 million project.

The facility would be built onto the existing Johnson County Courthouse and proponents say it would address space issues at the jail as well as space and security issues at the more than 100-year-old courthouse.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek — the project’s most vocal proponent — said it’s time to stop sending Johnson County tax dollars out of the county.

“Our tax dollars are being used to supplement other counties’ taxpayers and help them lower taxes or fund other county expenses,” he said.

The county began housing inmates elsewhere in 2001 after the state jail inspector determined that the jail was overcrowded. At the time, some cells were housing as many as three inmates even though the jail was built to house one inmate per cell. Pulkrabek said the jail also was leading the state in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.

In August 2001, the county began sending overflow inmates to Linn County, an arrangement that ended in June 2008 when historic flooding partially closed the Linn County Jail. Until 2008, the county had spent more than $2 million housing inmates there.

Counties put revenue to work

When Pulkrabek was elected sheriff in 2004, he said he discovered that finding a home for all of the county’s inmates was not always an easy task.

“When I took over, there was really limited space to be had,” he said. “It was simply a matter of making calls to different counties, ‘Do you have room?’ We’d take ’em wherever they had beds.”

Over the years, Johnson County inmates have been sent to Benton, Cedar, Dubuque, Iowa, Jasper, Jefferson, Linn, Marshall, Muscatine and Washington counties. They stay in other jails until their case has made it through the court system and they’ve been sentenced or until they’ve served their sentence. However, the county is responsible for making sure inmates are able to appear in Johnson County for court dates.

At times, inmates were housed in four or five counties, creating what Pulkrabek called a “logistical nightmare” in trying to manage them all.

After the flood of 2008, Pulkrabek began sending some inmates to the Marshall County Jail. In 2009, Marshall County became the primary overflow destination for male inmates. Overflow female inmates — which Pulkrabek said is the fastest growing segment of the local jail population — are sent to Washington County.

Marshall County Sheriff Ted Kamatchus said the 160-bed jail there opened in 2000. After relying on a 21-bed facility, Kamatchus said studies showed that within 10 years of opening, the county would need about 80 percent, or about 130 beds, of the 160-bed facility.

In the meantime, Kamatchus said he has tried to generate as much revenue as possible by taking on inmates from Johnson, Scott and Polk counties, the U.S. Marshals, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among other agencies.

“We probably house inmates for another two dozen agencies around the state,” he said.

Johnson County paid Marshall County just more than $1.8 million between June 2008 and January 2011 to house inmates. Kamatchus said all of that revenue goes into Marshall County’s general fund.

“What the Board of Supervisors does for allocating that money is up to them,” he said, adding that tracking how those dollars are spent is “virtually impossible to do.”

Housing inmates for other counties has been a boon for Marshall County, but Kamatchus questions how helpful it has been for Johnson County.

“It helped us greatly,” he said. “Did it really help Johnson County in the long run? If they built a jail in 2000, they could have put that $1.8 million toward the construction of that jail.”

In 2011, after completing a 136-bed addition to its jail, Muscatine County Sheriff David White told Pulkrabek he’d take the county’s overflow for $41 per day, per inmate. Muscatine County was not only closer, but also offered to cover transportation to and from Johnson County.

Including a few months in 2005 and 2010, Johnson County has sent nearly $1.2 million to Muscatine County. White said funds from Johnson County have allowed him to hire five full-time correctional officers, a nurse, mental health professionals, kitchen staff and other part-time employees to handle the additional inmates. Muscatine County also houses federal inmates for the U.S. Marshals.

White said the Muscatine County Jail expansion, part of a $9.1 million project that included installing geothermal heating and cooling at the jail and courthouse, essentially is paid for by the arrangement with the Marshals. After the expense of paying for the additional employees, there’s not a lot of money left from Johnson County to spend or save, White said.

“If we end up with a few thousand dollars, we’ll pay ahead on the bond if that’s what the supervisors want to do on it,” he said.

Some counties depend on that funding more than others. The Washington County Jail takes on Johnson County’s overflow of female prisoners. Washington County Sheriff Jerry Dunbar said that when the jail was built — it opened in January 2008 — he wasn’t counting on the jail population dropping. Taking on some of Johnson County’s extra inmates helps to offset the expenses of running the jail.

“I’d have to amend my budget” without those inmates, Dunbar said.

Although Muscatine and Marshall counties have been able to generate revenue with the extra beds in their facilities, Pulkrabek said local residents shouldn’t count on Johnson County taking on out-of-county inmates if the justice center is approved. Though he doesn’t rule it out completely, Pulkrabek said there’s not a demand for extra beds and he won’t seek out additional inmates.

“Our intent is to build for Johnson County’s needs,” Pulkrabek said, noting the proposed justice center is anticipated to suit the county’s needs for 10 to 25 years into the future and is designed to accommodate future expansion, if necessary. “We’re not going into the jail income business.”

Money not the only concern

Aside from costs associated with housing inmates outside the county, Pulkrabek said other issues accompany the arrangement. For instance, unless an attorney is making arrangements to get his or her client out of jail, the county won’t provide transportation so the inmate and attorney can meet in Johnson County. Families also have to travel outside of the county to visit inmates.

There’s also the issue of having inmates on the road every day of the week, year-round, including during Iowa’s sometimes unpredictable winters.

“It’s a major concern we worry about constantly,” Pulkrabek said. “Especially when we’re talking about large numbers of inmates.”

The final issue, Sullivan noted, is that there’s simply no guarantee that the extra beds outside of the county always will be available. Like Johnson County today, jails in counties such as Marshall and Muscatine could one day reach capacity with their own inmates and not have the ability to take on overflow. Or they might decide to increase the price for the services they currently provide.

“Those two counties, in particular, have really cut the sheriff some pretty good deals, and there’s no guarantee those deals will be there forever,” Sullivan said. “You always want to control your own destiny. You hate to be at the mercy of some other governmental body where our people don’t have any votes there.”

Reach Lee Hermiston at 887-5413 or

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