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State pressures county to decide on jail

By Tim Ruzek

truzek@postbulletin.com

State corrections officials will prohibit Mower County from detaining inmates for more than three months if there's no progress on a new jail by next spring, the sheriff said Thursday.

Currently the jail can keep inmates up to three years under certain conditions, Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi said while speaking to about 50 people at the Mower County Township Association's fall meeting in Elkton.

If the county has nothing in place to address its overcrowded jail by April, a state Department of Corrections official recently told Amazi, the jail will be reduced to a 90-day-hold facility. The county then would have to find other correctional facilities to rent beds for those inmates, Amazi said.

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About 80 percent of the county's jail population would be affected by the mandate, Amazi said.

State corrections also likely would cut the jail's capacity again, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said.

Mower County Jail's population is about 70 inmates, although the jail in Austin has a 45-person capacity, Amazi said. About 18 inmates are kept in the Mitchell County, Iowa, jail under a lease, she said.

The county's judges have told Amazi that 40 to 50 people are under electronic-home monitoring rather than sitting in jail. Both judges are "not real comfortable about doing that," Amazi said.

The county has a purchase-option agreement for 60 acres of farmland just outside of southeast Austin along U.S. 218 South.

County and city of Austin staff members recently have been meeting to work together on remaining contentious issues. A joint report is expected within the next week.

If restricted to a 90-day jail, the county probably would close the jail and lay off jail staff, Oscarson said. The county board then would decide whether to board inmates to other jails or pay to build a jail, he said.

Corrections officials say the county's jail doesn't have adequate space for inmate programming, such as exercise and education, Amazi said.

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Richard Epley, the township association's president, said taxpayers need to "bite the bullet" and go forward with the justice center. The process has taken too long, he said, and "it's time to do something." If approved, the county would pay for the jail and justice center with property taxes.

County board member Garry Ellingson, a former jail administrator for Mower County, said people are too focused on the overall cost to build. With a better setup and technology, the county will save money, he said.

The county also wouldn't need to board inmates elsewhere, for which it now pays about $25,000 a month in Iowa, Ellingson said. Crime is going up nationwide, he said, and statistics show Mower County likely hasn't "hit its peak yet."

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