Lee County Jail officials say move could hamper operations locally
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Lee County Sheriff and jail officials are concerned about a new order Wednesday that has stopped new inmate admissions and transfers in and out of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.
The order said due to the facility experience a rise in COVID-19 cases, the Iowa Department of Corrections is suspending admissions immediately.
The release indicated the suspension would be lifted as soon as the virus is no longer spreading at the facility, a move that could take weeks or even months.
The announcement raises concerns with Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber and Lee County Jail Administrator John Canida.
Weber said he’s considering billing the state for any inmates that he has to house in Lee County due to the suspension of admissions.
“I sent an email yesterday to the state. This costs us about $50 a day and my intention is to bill them for this,” he said.
Canida said if they suspension lasts only a couple weeks, the Lee County Jail will probably be able to handle it, but if it goes on for months it could be problematic.
“It won’t just be a problem for us, but this could be a problem for every jail in the state,” Canida said. “If it’s a two-week thing we can probably make it work, but if it extends beyond that, especially with the remodel the state is requiring, it will put us in a bind.”
Canida said he’s already scrambling to keep inmates safe through social distancing protocols with two cells being down for repairs.
Weber said the jail population was between 80 and 100 daily before the pandemic hit and now is about 70, but extra space is needed to help mitigate spreading in the jail.
He said the move could also impact local policing efforts.
“When we bring an inmate in on a warrant from another state, they are going to have be held here now until the suspension is lifted. I could see at some point where would have to turn down prisoners from Fort Madison or Keokuk police. This has the potential to create logjams all over,” Weber said.
Canida said the IMCC already requires any inmates coming into the system have a negative COVID-19 test, so they wouldn’t be bringing the virus on site.
Cord Overton, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections said the IMCC will reopen as soon as they are confident the virus has been contained. He said IMCC will also not be sending inmates out to other state facilities during the suspension.
“What we do not want to do is bring otherwise healthy inmates into an environment where there is currently viral spread taking place. We also will not be sending out inmates from a facility experiencing such a circumstance,” Overton wrote in an email Thursday.
“Due to the limited amount of space available, and the fact that we do not want to transfer inmates from a facility currently experiencing an outbreak to a facility that is not, we had to suspend admissions temporarily.”
Weber said the department will obviously cooperate with the order, but said at some point something needs to be done to help local law enforcement.
“We do so much for the state with courthouses, and now this. But then they don’t want to pay for it and the counties end up absorbing all the costs of these state decisions,” he said.
Canida said he’s already struggling to get reimbursement for services. On Aug. 15th, the Lee County picked up a female and brought her into the jail on a warrant out of Polk County. He said that county refused to send someone to pick up the girl, and she was released several days later.
“I contacted the DOC to figure out what they were gonna do with her and they eventually waived the warrant and released her. Now, I’m gonna have to fight with the DOC to get reimbursed for that,” Canida said.
Weber also said he’s concerned that the public and current inmates will know that the state isn’t accepting new inmates into the system.
“When the public knows prison is not an option, that’s not a good thing.” he said. “When you’re supposed to go to the woodshed and they won’t take you, that’s very frustrating for us.”
Overton wrote that the DOC has to consider the health and well-being of approximately 7,500 inmates under their supervision and doesn’t take the move lightly.
“The department has the utmost appreciation for our partners that manage the jails across the state. The decision to suspend admissions to IMCC is never taken lightly, and only exercised when we feel it is absolutely necessary to preserve the health and well-being of our staff and those incarcerated,” Overton wrote.
“Our partners in the jails have been incredible in their understanding of this challenge, and we will continue to be grateful for their flexibility and understanding as we all navigate through the pandemic together.”