Winnebago County Public Safety Center

The Winnebago County Public Safety Center, which was completed earlier this year, includes a new county jail. The county board of supervisors and the sheriff met with officials from Lake Mills and Forest City Wednesday about inmates being turned away from the jail.

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FOREST CITY | Forest City and Lake Mills officials attended last Tuesday's Winnebago County Board of Supervisors meeting to voice their concerns about inmates being turned away from the new jail.

Lake Mills Police Chief Dave Thomas said some people arrested by his department have not been accepted at the county jail because they had a blood alcohol content level of .30 or more, or refused to take a preliminary breath test to determine their BAC. 

Winnebago County Sheriff Dave Peterson said those inmates were turned away due to liability issues.

Sometimes the Lake Mills police have not been able to find another place to house these highly-intoxicated inmates, according to Thomas. This means they have to be released pending their court date.

"If that's not a liability issue, I don't know what is," he said.

"It's a liability issue having someone about to drown in his own vomit in jail," said Winnebago County Supervisor Bill Jensvold.

He noted liability is more of a concern these days because of the increasing number of lawsuits filed against jails.

Forest City Mayor Barney Ruiter said some of the people there are saying, "We are not going to pay the taxes for the new jail. We aren't allowed to use it."

He also said the county is losing income by having to pay to house inmates at the Kossuth County Jail, where some Winnebago County inmates are being sent, and the Cerro County Jail.

Hancock and Winnebago counties made an agreement that Hancock County inmates would be housed at the new Winnebago County jail when that facility had adequate staff to accommodate them.

Inmates from Hancock County were moved to the Cerro Gordo County Jail at the end of June, before the new Winnebago County Jail opened.

Hancock County Sheriff Scott Dodd told the Globe Gazette his county only had jail staff on site on weekdays. On evenings and weekends, deputies had to come to the jail and do the booking process themselves for people they arrested. 

Housing inmates elsewhere means his deputies can get back in the field faster after they arrest someone, according to Dodd.

He said Winnebago County has been able to accept a few inmates from Hancock County since the new jail opened, but the vast majority are still being housed in Cerro Gordo County.

Peterson said the Winnebago County Jail should be staffed at the level recommended by the state jail inspector in four or five weeks, once the most recently-hired jailer has completed her training.

At that time the jail should be able to accept more inmates, including those from Hancock County, he said.

However, Peterson said the jail still won't accept those with a BAC of .30 or more.

He said more than a quarter of Iowa counties with jails have a similar policy, and others are considering adopting it.

Supervisor Mike Stensrud asked what is to be done with people who are highly intoxicated when they are arrested if they are not going to be booked into the jail.

Peterson said they are to be taken to the hospital or released to a family member.

"You can take a drunk driver to a family member?" Stensrud asked.

"We used to do it all the time," Peterson said.

The Winnebago County Jail also isn't going to accept inmates who are suicidal, according to Peterson.

"We aren't going to run that risk," he said.

Thomas said if getting the jail fully staffed doesn't resolve the issue of turning inmates away, "It's a broken system and it needs to be re-evaluated."

In May 2015 Winnebago County voters approved a $4.6 million bond referendum for a Winnebago County public safety center that included a new jail.

"The people built the jail. They did. They voted for it. Now we have to step up and pay the piper," Stensrud said. 

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