One Solution to Rural Jail Budget Woes: Import Prisoners

Jail authorities in Iowa’s rural Wayne County have earned nearly $1 million by housing inmates from nearby counties. That’s helped fund some long-needed improvements in health care for inmates. 

Sheriff’s offices typically aren’t big on revenue generation. But in Iowa’s rural Wayne County, overflowing inmates from contiguous counties have been contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local authorities’ justice budget–and in the process helping all of them cope with a burgeoning rural justice crisis.

The biggest customer? Nearby Lucas County, where locals opted to build a 24-hour holding facility instead of replacing their jail. Next is Appanoose County, where the jail struggles to hold even one-fourth of its inmate population.

The two counties have paid just shy of $1 million to Wayne County since 2009 to hold overflow inmates.

From July 2017 to June 2018, the most recently completed fiscal year, Wayne County collected $185,225 from the two counties. With a budget of around $1.7 million per year, money from housing other county’s inmates covered about 11 percent of the budget.

Appanoose and Lucas counties represent just the most frequent customers at the Wayne County jail. They hold other inmates, as well, including some from Warren County while the county builds its newly approved jail.

Wayne County, located in southern Iowa, is the fifth least populous county in the state

Wayne County could, in theory, earn more if Sheriff Keith Davis desired to.

But the southern Iowa sheriff Davis said he keeps the cost fair. Some jails elsewhere in the state can charge $75 per day for each inmate, if not more. Wayne’s daily rate is nearly half that.

Wayne County’s jail capacity, now at 31 beds following an expansion about five years ago that added eight beds (referred to by a sign as Appanoose County West), is the maximum their current site can hold. Davis said citizens wanted their new law center to be built on the square, thus the facility is largely land-locked in terms of future expansion space.

Projections of Wayne County’s own inmate population predicted they would need those 31 beds by the time the facility’s 20th birthday rolled around. And the county’s jail population is indeed growing.

Partially due to the influx of cash from holding other county’s inmates, the sheriff’s office has added another deputy. Plus, last year they took over law enforcement in Corydon as the city disbanded its police department. The younger deputies hired since then are arresting more people, Davis said.

Davis said the jail wasn’t constructed as a revenue generator, but project leaders knew that would be a possibility. Holding excess inmates allowed them to open up the expansion wing of eight additional beds earlier than scheduled without needing to pass an additional bond.

The money can’t be traced to specific projects but sending thousands of dollars back to the county’s general fund each month makes it easier to convince the Wayne County Board of Supervisors to fund Davis’ priorities.

“It makes it easier for me to go to the board and say, ‘Hey, I want this,’ or, ‘I need this,’” Davis said.

Last year, Davis paid $770,000 back to Wayne County, between inmate holding revenues and excess collections from local option sales tax that funded their jail construction.

“That’s a pretty good chunk of our budget that we actually return to them,” Davis said.

The county has also been able to save money on medical and mental health services since a larger inmate pool allows them cheaper rates for those services.

“Our medical bills were killing us,” Davis said.

They now have a doctor on call around the clock, which has saved several inmate trips to the local emergency room. They also have nurses that make rounds three times per week.

Regional Jail Plans Stall

 In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, local counties including Appanoose and Wayne were attempting to band together to replace their jails with a larger regional one, big enough to house everyone’s prisoners.

It was recommended then, according to past stories in the Daily Iowegian, that a 144-bed jail be built with future expansion possible to 200 beds. It was anticipated to be enough to hold a six-county area of inmates until at least 2030.

A study completed in December 1999 found that six counties — Appanoose, Davis, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe and Wayne — could save money by jointly merging efforts to construct the jail.

In June 2000 a $150,000 grant was awarded to develop a strategic plan for the project.

The project stalled, however. Money expected from the state fell through, sidelining the project at the time. Prospects of a regional jail are dead, now.

Of the six counties involved, Appanoose is the only one that hasn’t had new construction.

Wayne, Monroe, Davis and Decatur counties have constructed new jails in the past decade, with a total bed count of roughly 105 between them. Lucas County opted to go with a holding facility, meaning inmates kept longer than 24 hours must be farmed out.

Appanoose County’s inmate population has continued to grow, averaging 22.4 inmates in custody per day and about two new inmates booked every day in 2017.

But two bond referendums to build larger facilities have failed to get the necessary support from Appanoose County residents, the biggest objection appearing to be that the bonds would be funded from property taxes

Additionally, the average stay by Appanoose County inmates is up just in the past five years. In 2014, the average inmate would stay in jail for about 8.4 days. In the first nine months of 2018, that average was sitting at 12.4 days per stay.

New Jail, Empty Beds

On May 5, 2015, voters in Davis County widely approved the construction of a new, 28-bed jail and law center. That same day, the county’s more than 40-year-old jail held just four inmates.

That wasn’t a fluke, from 2012 until the new jail was opened in 2017, the average number of inmates bounced between four and five most days. According to the daily counts reported to the state, and obtained and analyzed by the Daily Iowegian, there were many times in 2015 the jail sat empty.

In 2017, Davis County’s inmate population suddenly jumped, consistently hitting double digits. The new jail that voters approved in 2015 was open, and beds were being filled by inmates from outside the county.

Many of those inmates are coming from neighboring Appanoose County, which averages a daily population roughly triple what its jail can hold legally. The jail, which can hold nine inmates at a time, sits in a county that has been responsible for as many as 38 inmates at a time.

When Davis County was studying the issue, a report showed crumbling structures at its old facility. The building that housed the county’s law enforcement was repurposed from an 1892 building. In 1972, the jail was moved to what had been the water treatment plant on site from its former location beneath the county courthouse.

Among the biggest reasons for the new construction was these building and space issues for both the jail and law enforcement officers.

From 2012 through 2017, Davis County averaged roughly 4.7 inmates a day, though that number had spiked once to 13.

Those who studied the new Davis County Law Center and jail saw a history of population that remained relatively flat year to year. Their projections were based on the unlikelihood that would continue, citing nearby counties that are experiencing ballooning population.

Based on that and a modest five percent growth each year for the next 20 years, project leaders predicted by 2027 the jail would have 15 inmates of its own each day.

In the meantime, Davis County will, like other area counties, benefit from holding Appanoose County’s overpopulated inmates.

Additional reading: Rural (In) Justice: The Crisis in America’s Rural Jails

Kyle Ocker, editor of the Daily Iowegian, is a 2018 John Jay/Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an edited and slightly condensed version of the first of a series of articles on the rural jail crisis written as part of his fellowship project. The full article is available here.