Strengthening security: Sheriff details new jail's safety measures

Rachael Keating/Clinton HeraldThe new Clinton County law center is under construction near the Clinton County Courthouse. The new facility is expected to improve jail staff members' ability to oversee inmates, Sheriff Rick Lincoln said. Being able to keep a closer eye on inmates is important when it comes to keeping them safe while they are in custody.

CLINTON — As work continues on the construction of Clinton County's new law center, Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln recently shared details about its construction and how it will be set up to oversee inmates.

Clinton County voters over two years ago approved the construction of the law center facility. Approximately 13 percent of eligible voters voted in the special election, which required at least 60 percent voter approval – known as a super majority – to pass. The $22 million bond referendum was approved by nearly 74 percent of voters.

The passage of the referendum authorized the county to issue general obligation bonds to pay for the costs of designing, constructing, equipping and furnishing a jail, sheriff's office, 911/communications center and Emergency Management office and to demolish the existing facility.

In its place will be a new law center that will improve the Clinton County Jail staff's ability to oversee inmates, he said. Being able to keep a closer eye on inmates is important when it comes to keeping them safe and decreasing the likelihood of suicides in the jail.

It was in early June that the jail dealt with such a crisis. Inmate Amy Jo Miller, 45, was discovered hanging in a cell May 29 and was transported by ambulance to Mercy Medical Center – Clinton. Miller subsequently was transferred to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City and was later pronounced dead. An autopsy, performed by the state medical examiner, determined the cause of death was hypoxia, which is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues. The manner of death was ruled a suicide.

Lincoln said correctional officers, deputies working in the Clinton County Jail and nurses were on the scene right away. Detectives from the Clinton County Sheriff's Office began an investigation, an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation was contacted to investigate and the Clinton County Attorney's Office was notified.

"In this particular case when I contacted the DCI, this last case, she was transported to Mercy Medical Center and then out to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics when they were like she's still alive," Lincoln said. "I was like, 'Yeah, she is but I would like an outside pair of eyes to look at this' so they did agree to send an agent."

In the current facility, Clinton County Jail employees are required to conduct a cell check of inmates once per hour.

"They carry handheld computers," Lincoln said. "Outside each cell block is a little tab that's mounted to the wall that corresponds to that cell block. As they walk by, they swipe it with the handheld computer and it comes back and is downloaded into the regular computer. So we can do a cell check confirmation that they have indeed made that."

Lincoln says the issue is staff at the jail have other duties in addition to monitoring inmates, including booking inmates in and out, doing paperwork, preparing meals to deliver, managing medications and checking in visitors.

Lincoln said while jail staff members takes steps to supervise inmates at the current law center facility, the facility's design creates challenges because the linear layout causes problems with having cameras set up throughout the jail. The Clinton County Jail does have cameras in the holding tanks, which Lincoln said is the high-risk area for the jail.

"The holding tank is utilized when a person's first arrested and they're booked in," Lincoln said. "They're placed into a holding tank until they go to court and then if the judge says that they're going to stay with us they are showered in and then placed into a regular cell block. So that's our process. We try to put the cameras in what we consider to be the high-risk areas. So because the staff (member) physically has to get up and walk back and walk in a circle around the linear cell blocks in connection with all their other duties the inmates know we're only going to be coming by every so often. We do come by quicker sometimes. We try to mix it up a little bit but they know there's not always somebody there watching them."

Lincoln stated the new law center's layout will improve the jail staff's ability to oversee inmates. The control room, which will be located on the second floor of the law center facility, will feature windows around it and will allow Clinton County Jail personnel to look down into the cell blocks. The new law center will also have a second correctional officer who will be able to walk around on either the inside of the control room and look through or come back and walk around through the cells. Lincoln said the new design will give Clinton County Jail personnel a better opportunity to keep eyes on inmates more frequently than they do currently.

Lincoln said bedsheets and cell bars are two things that typically go together for potential suicide attempts at the law center facility. The new facility will have little hooks inside the cells that are pressure sensitive and will trip at a certain weight. The shower head at the new facility will be a spout that comes out of the roof. It is currently an actual head with a nozzle.

"They've taken away some opportunity," Lincoln said.