IRONTON — The original wing of the Iron County Jail — known by some as “the dungeon” — has been shut down for the summer.
Sheriff Roger Medley recently told county commissioners that the thick limestone walls heat like a kiln when temperatures climb above 90 degrees.
“I just felt it was a risk we don’t need to be taking,” Medley said. “I don’t want to cause somebody to die or have a heat-related injury.”
The county is using a newer section of the jail — built a little less than 40 years ago — that can hold up to nine people. Additional inmates are being transported to neighboring counties, according to Medley.
“We’ve had prisoners stay here as long as 15 or 16 months,” he said. “It affects the people who stay here and that’s one of the reasons I have a deal with other sheriffs where I sometimes send them over to their jail for 30 days. I don’t want them to go nuts in here. If they’re having problems, we’re having problems. So, I’d just soon send them somewhere else for a while. They get a break from me and me from them. We all need a break from each other.”
About 30 states have jail standards. Missouri is not among them, and the quality of jails in the state varies widely. Iron County’s jail is undoubtedly among the worst.
A tour of the jail
Put into commission just two years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, the jail looks every bit of its 147 years. In fact, it remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years until the addition for women and juveniles was constructed in 1978.
The first thing one notices is that the heat is stifling. There is no air conditioning or ventilation at all.
On each side of the room there are three small cells separated by a center wall — six in all. Each has a bed and several have a toilet. While they’re usable, inmates cover the toilet seats with cardboard to keep the smell of sewage from drifting back up into their cell.
There is a central shower and toilet for use by inmates when a jailer is available to let them out of their cells.
Medley points out something on the wall that at first glance appears to be a heavily barred window. That is not at all the case.
“There are no windows in the jail,” he said. “This is strictly a steel grate. There’s solid steel rods that rotate inside the outside vertical bars. You could saw for 20 years and all it’s going to do is go round and round and round. You’d never get out.”
Medley first called attention to the old wing in 2012 after a 50-page assessment found a need for several upgrades to the jail.
The assessment noted a lack of daylight, temperature control, smoke detection, sprinklers, unobstructed exit paths, accessibility for the disabled and visibility into cells.
“Our jailers can’t see what’s going on inside,” Medley said. “We have a camera that we can look right inside the door, but we can’t tell what’s going on inside because we can’t see in there at all.”
All the problems that come with a jail nearly a century-and-a-half old are only multiplied when the facility is vastly overcrowded like Iron County’s.
“The jail legally holds 12 prisoners, but we’ve had as many as 30 in here,” Medley said. “We have a little bit of an immunity because we have no choice but to house prisoners.”
The sheriff points the finger at illegal drugs for the increase in Iron County crime.
“We’re starting to get a lot of drug inmates, but a huge amount of ours are sexually related,” Medley explained. “I know a lot of sexual abuse used to go on that wasn’t reported — and it’s getting more reported now — but I think the drugs are generating the sex crimes. One thing leads to another, or at least that’s what we’re seeing.”
A difficult problem
Through the years many Iron County residents have contended that their county jail shouldn’t be a place of comfort for the guilty and should remain as is. Medley said this pattern of thought reveals a basic misunderstanding.
“The people we house here have not been found guilty,” he explained. “We only confine people for the purpose of court. They’re suspects.”
Medley also considers it doubtful that jail’s deplorable condition is enough to deter a prisoner from committing future crimes.
“I don’t think it makes much difference at all,” he said. “The ones that repeat are generally those using drugs or those doing a lot of stealing because of the drugs.”
The county commission gave Medley authority to seek bids for what has been hopefully described by some as “central air conditioning.” Medley begged to differ.
““This would be setting an air conditioner outside and running a couple of ducts up to those windows and just bringing in the air conditioning on one of those sides,” he said. “There’s no way to put actual ductwork up in here because the ceiling is a quarter-of-an-inch plate steel. That’s one of the issues about doing any kind of upgrade. You can’t do it. The cinderblocks are three foot square. It’s like a 3-feet piece of concrete. There’s not a lot you can do.”
County Commissioner Don Barzowski agrees with Medley’s assessment.
“How much money can you put into a building that old? It’s just not feasible,” he said. “The fact is, sooner or later we are going to have to come up with a plan to build a new jail.”
Finding the money to build that new jail could be a problem. With the county budget extremely tight, could raising property taxes or passing a sales tax provide the revenue needed for a new jail?
“There are pros and cons on both,” Medley said. “I’m a property owner, so, I don’t like property tax increases. The reality is that it’s going to cost x amount of dollars for the rest of eternity to run this jail. Property tax is set, but sales tax fluctuates. That’s something I think the citizens need to have some meetings or hearings, talk about it. Our commissioners and assessor — all of our people who run the county — need to sit down and ask what really is best. Because we can write and pass a sales tax but is it the right thing and what we really need? We need reality.”
The sheriff said he, along with several other county workers, received a strong dose of reality when they visited the National Institute of Corrections in Colorado a few years ago.
“We went out and learned all about jails,” Medley said. “You don’t want to overbuild. They had some counties do that — build a 200-person jail without thinking. They only had 20 people. So, they couldn’t open their jail. One of them is still closed after five or six years. You have to build to reality. It’s wonderful to have a couple of hundred-person jail, but it’s not reality. Our reality is 30 people that we can run with two people on duty at a time. We need five people to run a 24/7 operation. That is the national standard. If you want anybody to ever have a day off, you’ve got to have five people.”
Medley said there’s another idea that might help alleviate some of the problems being faced by Iron and its surrounding counties.
“The best thing that could happen for us would be a regional jail,” he said. “We’d go ahead and build our 30-person jail, but anyone that’s long-term or who was in need of a mental facility would go there. That makes the most sense and relieves everybody of the overcrowding.”
But what about the cost? It wouldn’t be a problem, according to Medley.
“It would actually make money because there’s a great deal of federal money for mental health and things like that — and it’s much safer,” he said. “Getting the county commissioners and the community to understand that, while this will be a revenue generator, it won’t really be a revenue generator for us. But I tell everyone that zero is a wonderful number. I mean, it’s nice to make money, but what everybody forgets is that you have to put a lot of money out most of the time to make money. For us to be able to take care of this problem and end up at zero cost would be wonderful.”
“I don’t want to cause somebody to die or have a heat-related injury.” — Iron County Sheriff Roger Medley
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or email@example.com