A consultant examining future needs at the Dubuque County Jail says the facility is operating beyond its capacity, based on his assessment of how inmates should be housed.
Rod Miller, president of the nonprofit Community Resource Services Inc., told county supervisors this week that while there are more than 210 beds and short-term holding spaces in the jail, he would put its optimal operating capacity at closer to 140 inmates. The jail’s current daily average is about 180 inmates.
“You can house the inmates you have,” Miller said. “You have the beds, but you’re taking risks for everybody because you have to put so many of them in (minimum-security) dorms.”
Sheriff Joe Kennedy told the Telegraph Herald after the meeting that Miller was using different criteria than the sheriff’s department uses and that there is space for the current inmates at the jail. However, he still has concerns about crowding in the facility.
“We do know we are operating at capacity right now,” he said.
Supervisors earlier this year hired a firm to work on a jail-needs assessment. Design Alliance, which is now Farnsworth Group, has worked with consultants to come up with recommendations for the jail, part of which dates back to the 1970s.
During a board work session this week, Miller told supervisors about some of the factors that lead him to believe the jail’s capacity is smaller than the physical number of beds.
He said the jail has about 190 beds and about 25 short-term holding spaces, the latter of which are typically occupied for a matter of hours. Of the existing beds, 64% are in minimum-security dorms.
However, jails generally are seeing fewer inmates who don’t need a secure environment and can be housed in dormitory spaces, he said.
“We don’t see very much of that anymore,” Miller said. “The quote ‘good inmates’ are ones that we’ve found better things to do with in the community and the criminal justice system.”
Those dorms also make it difficult to properly separate inmates when needed. A jailer is in each dorm around the clock, but maintaining that presence is expensive, Miller said.
Miller also told the supervisors that he believes the county jail is on track to have an average daily jail population of 250 inmates within 20 years. However, local officials can work together on practices and programs that would reduce that population.
“It’s my opinion that the community and criminal justice system are willing to work together to do more to address this and to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior,” Miller said.
He recommended that county leaders focus on those conversations but also that the architects working on the jail consider some steps to improve the facility.
Those recommendations include replacing housing units in the 1970s portion of the jail; providing adequate intake, release and holding space; increasing program and service space; and looking into dividing up the dorms and converting some of that space into cells.
In recent weeks, the jail’s average daily population has been around 180 inmates, but before that, inmate counts were topping 190 — and even more than 200 one weekend, Kennedy said.
He noted that multiple factors impact the number of people the jail can house besides the physical number of beds, such as inmates who need to be separated because they are at risk of violence or are members of street gangs.
“There is a need for us to do something either to increase our capacity or have some effect on the way the system works in order to either reduce the number of beds needed or increase the number of beds available,” Kennedy said.
Supervisor Dave Baker said during the meeting that there are issues in the jail that need to be addressed but that supervisors will need to get a better sense of how much improving the jail will cost.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near being able to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down here,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”
The jail-needs assessment is expected to be completed and presented to the county supervisors by the end of the year.