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New jail isn't answer

Nicholas Johnson

The Daily Iowan

January 25, 2007

Editorial, "Talk of New Jail Should Be More Than Just Words" [original editorial to which this letter responds]

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Daily Iowan.]

The Daily Iowan editorializes "it is necessary to provide adequate and appropriate facilities to handle inmates" in the Johnson County Jail. ("Talk of new jail should be more than just words," Jan. 22.) The editorial is right. Prisoners "are still people and still entitled to decent care." That's not only a no-brainer, it's the law.

But it's not the issue.

Some cities' officials look at crowded freeways and say, "We need more lanes." They're right that traffic jams are an economic and personal burden. But wider roads are soon equally congested.

Other cities' officials look at crowded freeways and say, "Let's substitute better public transportation and bike paths." That's sometimes a more effective strategy.

Similarly, some see crowded jails and want to build more and bigger ones. Others ask, "Why are these people in jail?"

Prisons have become our public-housing program, holding one of the largest prison populations in the world.

Who are they? A goodly number are mentally ill, deprived of the mental hospital care formerly provided. Others are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Many are nonviolent offenders found with small amounts of marijuana. Some are just awaiting trial. Community service or tracking ankle bracelets could be alternatives for still more.

Have we applied basic systems analysis and "thinking outside the cell" to "crowded jails"? Maybe we have. If not, $25 million jails may be the equivalent of eight-lane freeways when bike paths would do.

Nicholas Johnson
UI College of Law

Talk of new jail should be more than just words


Daily Iowan

January 22, 2007

Johnson County has been growing, and with growth, it is necessary to expand public facilities to keep up. Once more, some officials have advised that the Johnson County Jail be replaced with a larger facility to house the inmate population. Currently, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors is approaching firms to look at several sites for possible construction of a new jail. The area near the county Courthouse and land just west of Iowa City are both being considered, as is an unspecified third location. The issue is not the supervisors, who are on top of this problem, but the willingness of Johnson County residents to pay for a new facility.

In 2000, there was a vote to decide if the county would build a new jail. Residents responded with a resounding 70 percent "no" vote. Now, the overcrowded jail ships inmates off to Linn County or elsewhere to handle overflow. A recent study by the National Institute of Corrections echoed these past concerns about the need to update the jail.

There may be an inclination among Johnson County residents against spending more money for a new jail because they feel the present facility is adequate. After all, these people are incarcerated, and you don't go to jail to live in the lap of luxury. This view is incorrect on two counts. The first point is one of safety, for the guards and the inmates. The second is that despite what one may think of prisoners, they are still people and still entitled to decent care. The county is not asking for money to install cable or a tennis court. Building a new jail has real practical value and is backed by valid reasons.

The cost of constructing a new facility wouldn't be cheap - the current estimate is $25 million, and that would necessitate a tax increase. If people are concerned about cost, consider the potential liability costs should someone be injured and decide to sue. Real and punitive damages can be quite high. There's also the continued expense of shipping prisoners out of the county, which isn't cheap, either. More than $1.7 million was spent to use Linn County's jail over the past five years.

This is a problem that hasn't gotten better over the past several years, and it's not going to solve itself. A solution is going to cost money, which is how public services work - and when it is an essential service such as the justice system, it's a risky area in which to be stingy. Regardless of what the view on prisoners may be, it is necessary to provide adequate and appropriate facilities to handle inmates. We hope the plans by the supervisors will be more than just talk.