Inside the BV County Jail, a space crisis is all too clear
The first sight greeting a new inmate at the Buena Vista County Jail are the green bars - a jungle of them in every direction. The smell of cleanser can't quite erase the faint odor of urine. And then there is the moody silence, even though ten hard-faced inmates, clad in orange jumpsuits, laze around in the cramped day room.
A television with fuzzy reception murmurs in front of the cell. Some prisoners absentmindedly gaze at its screen. Others stare at the ceiling. One sits alone on his bunk, dried blood caking his swollen knuckles. None of them smile.
A jailer enters - "Coming through, guys." Several greet him politely, one cries out a stream of obscenities.
Outside, a pretty young girl caked in makeup and layered in leather leans tensely against a wall in the courthouse, awaiting a man's release.
In the adjoining room, through a bolted door labeled, "No firearms beyond this door," sits jailer Mary Bolte. A BV County jailer for five years, Bolte said she has never had a "typical" day. Sometimes there are as few as six or seven prisoners, sometimes there are 25. She has come in on weekends mornings and people are sleeping on tables in the day room.
"If you have 14 people in the day room, tensions are high," she said. "There's some very nice people here, and some very not nice people."
The BV County Jail meets the occupancy requirements set by Chapter 50 of the Code of Iowa, but just barely. It is classified to hold 21 inmates, but sometimes the occupancy reaches as high as 29. The past three weekends in a row, it has been over capacity. The crowded conditions have caused headaches for BV County Sheriff Chuck Eddy and his department in their efforts to shuffle prisoners to maintain compliance with the state code.
"When it really gets busy it gets kind of like checkers," said Eddy.
The jail is designed more as a dormitory rather than a jail cell. The day area, which holds 14, is where prisoners spend their time from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Four sleeping cells surround the day room. One holds eight bunks even though it is only classified to hold six prisoners. It is running under a waiver from the state.
There is another six bed cell, and two smaller rooms with two beds. A former female holding cell with three beds can be used as a 16-hour holding cell.
In 2000, Buena Vista County voters denied the county its request to build a new jail. Many were concerned about the cost, estimated around $6 million, and the need for extra capacity. A task force was created to study the jail situation and alternatives that could be implemented to relieve the crowding.
The 14-member team has met four times so far, and will hold its next meeting on Thursday. At that session, an Omaha architect is expected to make a presentation on some options for expanding the jail, and local authorities will review public comments on the situation. "It's very early in this process, but mostly what we hear is people saying, "Well, we know you need to do something," Sheriff Eddy said.
The committee will share its findings with the Board of Supervisors by the end of the year for potential action.
The worst problems are its lack of capacity, and the fact that there are no facilities to house women and juveniles, said task force chair, Bill Strawn. "We will look at any options, any possibility," Strawn said.
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