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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Behind Bars

Monday, November 19, 2012

Prisoner Holding Cigarette Between Bars
Business is frustratingly steady for the Buena Vista County Jail, where a steady stream of clientele are keeping the facilities busy and the costs to the county considerable.

Last year, 2,600 inmates were booked into the jail, according to Sheriff Gary Launderville, who estimates that about 2,000 of those originated with Storm Lake Police Department arrests and the rest from the county deputies and police officers in the other area towns. It costs the county $55 daily for each to house those prisoners - much more when they bring in medical issues with them.

"Earlier this year we would commonly average around 25 people in jail at a given time, but in the past seven or eight months, it has gone up to 30-35 on average," he said.

One reason for high numbers is an unexpected partner in the efforts against illegal immigration - the Hispanic citizens of the county.

"We never would have thought it, but we're getting phone calls from the people of Hispanic background who have gone through the system and gotten established here legally. They are very upset by the other people who are bypassing all the rules coming into the country, and they will call and tell us where they are working and under what names."

The use of fake names is something of a frustrating epidemic for area law enforcement.

"We have guys come in three or four different times using a different name every time. We know they're lying, but they won't admit it for anything. We eventually find out a real identity through fingerprints or other means, but then you have to go in and change every record that person might have."

One new tool being used to offset the tide of arrests is a new kind of electromagnetic bracelet that can be used on prisoners in non-violent cases, allowing more work release or "house arrest" situations. Unlike monitoring devices in the past, the new bracelets provide real-time GPS tracking so officers and the company that produced the bracelets can pinpoint location of the individuals instantly, rather than using officers' time to visit their homes and workplaces to check on them.

The program is being tested with the first two applied last week. Prisoners must pay the cost of the equipment - and if they are not housed by the county, the sheriff's department in not responsible for their medical costs and food.

"We often have a number of people who are not a threat to the community, but they can't bail out only because they can't raise that kind of money. If we can get the courts to agree, this can be helpful," Launderville says.

Often, there is a big influx over the weekend as people are arrested for alcohol violations, disturbances and minor fights, but after 24-48 hours, most of those are cleared and the jail becomes a much quieter place at midweek. "We have about 30 solid, long term people - and it is a very expensive population," Launderville says.

In one case, a current inmate was sentenced by the court to a rare full year in county jail, the most time a person is supposed to serve on a single offense in a local facility. In many cases, the longterm inmates are holds for immigration issues.

Federal immigration officials will take no action until whatever crime the inmate was arrested for initially works completely through the system - which can take aslong as nine months. The county's taxpayers ultimately foot the bill to house, feed and care for the suspects over that time, Launderville notes.

When the inmates are finally picked up by officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are taken to Omaha to appear before an immigration judge.

"The feds do not tell us what happens at those hearings, but obviously, in a lot of cases those people are just being released," Launderville says. "All I can say is we are seeing a lot of them showing right back up on the streets here."

In many cases where the immigration hold inmates have bonded out, with ICE not reporting the outcome in immigration hearings, the county is unable to receive the funding from bond forfeits.

The new jail building has been a godsend, the sheriff says, and is proving to do everything it was designed to.

At current arrest rates, it normally runs half to three-fourths full, but those numbers can be deceiving. Some prisoners cannot be housed in holding cells with certain others that they would fight with, some have medical issues that need isolation, and female prisoners - about five a week on average - must be isolated from males. The result is that all beds cannot be used at a given time. Launderville said the jail staff is doing a masterful job of using the space and handling the population safely.

The county is sending all juvenile prisoners to the YES Center in Cherokee or other specialized facilities. While it was originally hoped that the new jail building could house juveniles on a short-term basis, conflicting state and federal policies make it almost impossible to do so. Also, if the jail ever houses juveniles, it will be required to provide schooling, forcing the county to hire teachers or tutors.

Prisoner medical costs are proving expensive to the county.

For the current fiscal year starting in July, Launderville budgeted $28,000 - higher than the amount spent in the previous year, but less than halfway through the fiscal year, the department is $8,000 in the red.

A single prisoner was treated at the Oakdale classification center for 70 days on mental issues - for a bill of $16,000 to county taxpayers. Another required $3,600 in medical care, and still another, an emergency ambulance trip to the local hospital for $1,400.

The jail's monthly pharmacy bill alone runs near $2,500, Launderville said.

Another source of considerable expense to the county has been the unusual case of Jose Tovar.

Tovar, then a Storm Lake teenager, was accused of stabbing his brother to death and attacking his parents in the family's Storm Lake home. He was found hiding in a neighbor's home covered with blood and with the knife used in the crime nearby.

For nearly seven years, Tovar has languished mostly in the county jail, ruled mentally unable to face trial. He has yet to even enter a plea in the killing.

After repeated protests from Launderville, the state finally agreed to assume jurisdiction for the inmate and moved Tovar to Oakdale two weeks ago for another evaluation to see if he can be declared fit to stand trial - although Launderville noted that his department could be called at any time to take him back.

The majority of the jail's population are not actually under sentence, but awaiting dates to go to trial in the highly-taxed court system.

There is no such thing as an average prisoner. "It doesn't matter what race or income level or anything else - we've got anything and everything back there."

Of late, it seems as if there has been more methamphetamine and other drug arrests. Launderville feel the arrests may be more a factor of more law enforcement manpower given to drug investigation, as opposed to more drugs. Lengthy investigations yield a number of arrests at one time.

"There seem to be peaks and valleys for each form of drug. Unfortunately, meth is a lot easier to make these days. What used to take an established lab site can now be made in a milk jug while the dealer is driving down the road. But you still have to have the precursor, and thank God Iowa passed the laws putting the necessary medication behind the counter at the stores. It is still a danger, but it could be much worse without that level of control." There have been several shocking sexual abuse cases involving child victims in northwest Iowa of late as well. One Buena Vista County suspect faces 66 charges, a Sac County suspect, over 30. Again, Launderville in convinced that the crimes have always been there, but in this case, more education may be making people more likely to report perpetrators, who are in a great majority of cases people well known to the victim families.

The county most often never recoups the costs of incarceration, but efforts by the county attorney's office to collect on old fines, new state policies that don't let people renew their car registrations unless they have paid restitution on past crimes, and the occasional honest criminal, bring a few dollars back in.

"The other day we had a check come in from a guy and we looked at the name a couple of times before we recognized it as someone who was in jail back around 1980, and has apparently decided to start paying it back 30-some years later. It's a good thing a couple of us have been around forever, or nobody would have had any idea what that check was for," Launderville said.

One would think that the season of peace on earth might be the slowest for the jail, but not so, the veteran sheriff sighs.

"This is the time of year we hate. Stress levels, failed expectations for the holidays, the heat bills that starting to come at people - whatever it is - it tends to be a time of a lot of emotion and much too often that seems to get expressed in the form of family violence."

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