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Jail: finally light at the end of a long, dark tunnel

County commits to securing bids for repair

IOWA CITY– Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan wants people to fully understand the situation with the county jail, and its estimated $1 million repair and renovation project.
“We’re not just fixing it up,” he said. “Our hand has been forced.”
Sullivan and his fellow supervisors unanimously approved the plans, specifications, and bid requests for badly-needed work at the facility, which was built in the 1980s. The resolution passed during the formal meeting Thursday, Oct. 2.
“It involves total gutting and replacement of the control center,” Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said in an email interview before the meeting. “Changing out locks, doors, electronics, sound alarms, cameras, other electronic monitoring equipment.”
“All the equipment associated with the locks, electronics, doors and control room is outdated,” County Facilities Manager Eldon Slaughter said, also via email. “We, who need to repair these items, are finding it harder and harder to find parts for repairs.”
Slaughter told the supervisors during a public hearing immediately prior to the vote that the project is a much-needed update. “Electronics people have to go to eBay to try to find parts,” he said, an example of the obsolescence and maintenance headache associated with the jail’s existing technology, which is now more than 30 years old.
Last year, Slaughter said, motorized controls for the sliding doors used in the jail had to be re-created because no replacement was available.
“That’s what’s being installed,” he said. “There’s nothing else for it.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig told Slaughter there were “a ton of questions in the public,” noting $1.2 million was budgeted for the work with an additional $250,000 for other repairs such as plumbing, walls and floors. Not included in either project, though, is any additional jail space.
“We cannot move any walls or do any remodeling,” Slaughter responded, as such work would change the status of the jail. “All we’re doing is upgrading the safety features that’s needed for the staff and the inmates.”
Rettig asked about other jail projects including a new generator, new roof and the repair or replacement of an elevator.
Slaughter confirmed the generator and roof would be budgeted in future fiscal years, but he was hoping to be able to include the elevator work, depending on how the bids come back. “That’s a 24-7-365 unit,” he said. “It’s as tired and outdated as the rest of ‘em.”
Part of the planning for the renovation has included discussions of what to do with the inmates, both current and future. “We are going to do (the work) in phases so that we do not completely shut the facility down,” Pulkrabek said. “The majority of inmates will be shipped out and the only ones being held here will be some sentences, overnighters, and some that might have court in a day or two.
“We will have contingency plans in place to move more people out at any given time, as needed,” the sheriff added.
Slaughter told the supervisors that a meeting the day before with the State Jail Inspector helped firm up the plan. Cellblocks A, B and C will be used as a detention, holding and booking area. The hallways leading to these areas can be blocked off, isolating them. “The rest of the jail upstairs will be open for renovation, including the control room,” Slaughter said, adding it would be a two-phase project. “It’s going to work good for everybody,” he added.
Bids for the project were opened Oct. 28 and Slaughter anticipates work beginning in early January with a 60-90 day timeline.
“We’re just trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as Harry (retired County Conservation Director Harry Graves) would say.” Slaughter said.