County jail so full, criminals walking free
By ANDREW MCGINN
Dozens of people accused of low-level crimes in Greene County will continue to walk free until the county has a big enough jail to house them, Sheriff Jack Williams told The Jefferson Herald this week.
Greene County’s current, eight-person jail simply can’t keep pace with the rate of crime, according to Williams.
“It’s been consistently full for the last two years,” Williams said.
That means local law enforcement isn’t looking as hard as it could for more than seven dozen people accused of lesser crimes.
“We have 92 outstanding warrants we don’t really go look for because we don’t really have the space,” Williams said.
And with a candidate for county attorney, Assistant County Attorney Thomas Laehn, eager to try local offenders, the county will have to decide whether to build a new jail or continue to pay other counties — sometimes exorbitantly — to house its criminals.
“With Thomas doing the job he’s doing, it’s not going to level off anytime soon,” Williams said.
County supervisors Tom Contner and Dawn Rudolph volunteered last week to serve with Williams on a new committee to examine the county’s options.
“I know the supervisors see our problem,” Williams said. “The community definitely sees our problem.”
The current county jail, built in 1974 within a new Greene County Law Enforcement Center on Chestnut Street, isn’t all that old by building standards, but as far as state code goes, it’s already had to be grandfathered in for continued use.
That also means if county officials update any part of the current facility, the entire facility has to be brought up to modern standards, Williams said.
In the current jail, sewage backups are common if an inmate flushes a sheet down the toilet — a persistent problem in correctional facilities, Williams said.
In newer facilities, he said, screens prevent sheets from being flushed. But simply installing screens at the Greene County Jail “means we have to rebuild the whole jail,” Williams said.
The county jail still passes inspection, he said, but the two areas consistently flagged by the state — an inadequate visitation room and an exercise facility in the basement of the LEC — have each contributed to inmate escapes in recent years.
Williams has been exploring options for the better part of a year.
A Des Moines engineering firm, learning of space issues at the local jail, reached out to Williams with plans for a new facility.
Their proposed Greene County Public Safety Center — which would also include a new station for the Jefferson Fire Department — would be built on three acres at a cost of $14 million, according to Williams.
Williams acknowledges that residents are wary of additional taxes. But if the county decides to pursue a bond issue in the future, Williams said he would like to tap TIF money from the county’s 100-plus wind turbines to lessen the tax burden.
Williams, who also serves as Jefferson fire chief, said the fire department, too, has outgrown its current station at City Hall.
To even get fire trucks into the current station, he said, mirrors have to be sheared off three inches. And then, he said, firefighters have only about three feet of space behind the trucks to put on their equipment.
The proposed center’s jail would have a capacity of 25, Williams said, with the ability to house as many as 50 inmates.
A jail that size would require the county to hire four more full-time jailers, Williams said, but the facility would position Greene County to make money from other counties for a change.
The county spends just $9 per day on each inmate at the Greene County Jail, Williams said, but with the jail full, people arrested in Greene County often have to be held elsewhere — and when they go elsewhere, the bills add up.
For Greene County inmates being housed in Boone County’s larger jail, the daily rate is $38 per inmate.
That doesn’t include drive time for a deputy to shuttle an inmate back and forth to court hearings.
On average, Williams said, Boone County holds four to five inmates a month for Greene County.
The county has paid as much as $100 per day, Williams said, to house an inmate at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. That person was there for a month.
On average, most people in the county jail are held for only 24 to 48 hours, Williams said, but they can remain for up to a year.
James Exline Jr., a rural Jefferson man convicted last week of sexually abusing his daughter, had been in the county jail awaiting trial since his arrest in 2017.
He will continue to be housed there until his sentencing in August.
But as a previously convicted sex offender, state law mandates he be separated from all other inmates, Williams said, meaning Exline alone has taken up an entire cell this whole time.
That explains why close to 100 Greene County arrest warrants are likely to remain outstanding.
“If I go looking for them,” Williams said, “it’s just going to cost three times what it would, tax-wise.”