The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Johnson County Jail in dire need of renovations as building ages

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors hopes to find a new jail facility before the current building is deemed unsafe.
Sara Stumpff
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors sit at a panel during a meeting at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Johnson County officials have slowly progressed toward a constructive plan regarding the maintenance and future of the deteriorating Sheriff’s Office and Jail.

County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said the county is waiting on the results of a $75,000 space needs study conducted by Shive-Hattery to make a reconstruction or replacement plan for the jail.

A space needs study documents the current conditions of the building, along with a draft budget of evaluated costs and priorities of the construction project.

Kunkel said once the study is finished, he will present the study results to the county Board of Supervisors, and they will work together to evaluate the next best possible steps.

The jail, located at 511 S. Capitol St., is long overdue for repairs, with interior cracks running up the walls, joint failure, and exterior weather-induced corrosion. The jail was assessed by engineering firm Faithful and Gould in March 2023 and was rated 104 percent, according to a report given to the board by Kunkel.

Faithful and Gould reported that any building assessment percentage over 60 percent should be considered for demolition.

In early August 2023, Kunkel brought the structural concerns to the attention of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. The presentation was based on a structural conditions assessment of the jail, done by Axiom Consultants. The presentation included similar assessments of the building’s safety and structure.

“Between current maintenance needs and potential repairs related to the structure itself, the cost would be millions of dollars and the County needs to decide if they want to spend millions on a building at the end of its life or invest in a long-term solution, that being a new facility,” Kunkel said.

Iowa Jail Inspector Delbert Longley told the supervisors that the county was in danger of facing increasing liability issues due to the safety of the building, and urged the board to quickly develop a plan for the future of the jail.

Longley said the process of finding a new jail facility would take a minimum of five years.

The jail has needed renovations since 2010, Kunkel said, but structural concerns were not brought to his attention until last year. Now the county is racing to construct a beneficial plan to continue providing a safe structure for the community, Kunkel said. Construction of the jail started in 1979 and was opened to the public in 1981.

Rod Sullivan, chair of the supervisors, said that based on results from the monitoring of the jail’s structure, the board will decide whether a new building will be necessary right away, or in the future.

“Even though we know the building is really inadequate, we’ve kind of been working on the assumption that it’s at least safe,” Sullivan said.

He said if the monitoring comes back with negative results, meaning the building is unsafe, the county will work to move all inmates and staff to the nearby jail in Linn County, which is 30 minutes away from Johnson County. Plans have yet to be made as the county has not received monitoring results yet.

Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz said they are concerned about the amount of time it has taken to form a contingency plan, and worries about the county’s lack of plans if the jail is soon deemed unusable.

“There’s still a lot of question marks, and I recognize that we’re not going to get all the answers resolved,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “At the same time, we do need kind of an understanding of, let’s generally say, ‘This is where the folks who are in the jail will go, and then this is where we’re thinking staff could go.’”

Fixmer-Oraiz said they like to have as much information as possible when it comes to public safety. The jail houses people who are required to be there, Fixmer-Oraiz said, and they want them to be as safe as possible in the building.

RELATED: Johnson County officials continue discussions on future of county jail

“These conversations need to be happening now. We had started a little bit of a conversation last year and I understand that we’ve had a structural assessment and that there’s a needs assessment that we’re waiting on,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “It’s such a huge expenditure, as any new facility, and I imagine it will be up to a public vote.”

Kunkel said the safety of the staff, inmates, and public are his top priorities, and would like to see the process move forward as fast as possible, while still being cautious and making well-informed decisions.

Detective Sergeant and Public Information Officer Alissa Schuerer wrote in an email to the DI that the jail has undergone frequent maintenance repairs over the past year.

“It’s a lengthy process, but we’re looking to provide the safest place for our employees to work, to keep the jail population in a sound facility, and be responsible with the community resources,” Schuerer wrote.

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About the Contributor
Sara Stumpff
Sara Stumpff, Photojournalist
Sara is a third year UI student who transfered from Kirkwood. She is a "non traditional" student who will hopefully obtain her BFA in Photography and BA in Spanish.