[Source: “Before you cast a vote, tour the county jail, courthouse,” Press Citizen, 31 March 2013, by Shams Ghoneim]
The county’s 32-year-old jail was designed with a capacity of 46 inmates — a number that reached 92 when jail officials decided to double bunk. The inmate daily average, however, has exceeded 170 and is reaching 200. As a result, the facility is out of compliance with state requirements for inmate space and is deficient in safety and design standards.
That’s why Johnson County officials — first in November 2012 and again on May 7 — have asked voters to support a proposed Justice Center that would increase jail capacity to at least 193 beds, provide space for rehabilitation programs and provide more space for legal personnel and judges.
For me, the main issue behind the proposal is the ongoing violation of basic human rights and the dignity for all the jail inmates due to extreme limitation of space afforded to each resident. The situation has led to:
- The lack of speedy and adequate consultation with assigned attorneys.
- The lack of available space to visit with family members.
- The lack of any access by inmates to exercise space or educational opportunities.
- And the lack of space for mental health and substance abuse programs, drug courts, electronic monitoring and other programs that reduce inmate recidivism.
The proposed justice center also would address critical accessiblity and safety issues with the county’s century-plus-old courthouse. It would make our court facilities finally comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would increase the number of courtrooms to lessen backlogs of cases. And it would help ensure the safety and security of judges, attorneys, law students and law enforcement officers.
The proposed just center also would eliminate the $1.3 million a year that the county spends (and the risks the county incurs) for transporting overflow inmates to jails in neighboring counties.
Despite of these dire conditions within the jail and courthouse, opponents of the proposed justice center are focusing their attention, instead, on the disproportionate incarceration rate of minorities in Johnson County.
Such a disparity is, of course, a disgrace. But it is an issue that goes beyond the complete control of county officials. And the ultimate solution must also involve major changes in our criminal justice system on the state and national level.
But does that mean we as a county should refuse to fix the obvious problems that are well within our control? Should we be holding the inmates, the jail staff and the local legal community hostage until we can address such a broad, systemic problem?
I wonder how many of the people who voted “no” in November 2012 bothered to take a tour of the jail and courthouse before they went to the polls? I wonder how many spoke with inmates or staff about the conditions? I wonder how many spoke with the family members of a mentally ill inmate? I wonder how many have served on a jury or frequented the courthouse for other civil services?
Yes, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities in Iowa jails is a well-known and disgraceful fact — and one that has resulted from our own collective failure to address it directly.
And regardless of the outcome of the May 7 special election, we as a community must commit ourselves to address effectively the heartbreaking disproportionate incarceration of minorities locally, statewide and nationally.
But should we compound our collective failure with even more human rights abuses by refusing to fix problems at the jail that are within our direct control?
I think not.
Please, before casting your vote, take a tour of the jail and courthouse. Talk to an inmate, to a judge, to a jail staff member.
Don’t just vote “no” out of protest.
Shams Ghoneim is a community member of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board.