Sheriff Kevin Aistrope isn't saying Fremont County should build a new jail because, he says, the facts speak for themselves.
He sweeps away sand mortar from the foundation bricks in the basement, steadies himself on the twisting staircase that creaks and climbs to the jail cells and ducks into an tight storage space to make room for an office worker trying to make her way down a narrow hallway.
The building is older than the county courthouse, erected sometime after the county's first sheriff was named in 1849.
The chief deputy and his family lived there and served holding cells that were constructed in an upstairs room.
A sliding iron door allowed the deputy to peak into the cells from his living quarters and his family would slide dinner plates through a slot in a bedroom wall.
In modern times, doors leading to the basement and interior offices were locked. The state Fire Marshal has since ordered the locks removed to achieve a passable exit in the case of fire.
Aistrope says anyone who gains entry through the front door, can walk anywhere in the building. If they climbed the staircase to the jail cells, all they would need is a key to open the iron gate.
Once, he said, a woman came in and displayed a gun, demanding the release of her boyfriend. Only a deputy, who had been working in his office, stood in her way.
He and the sheriff talked the woman into handing over the gun without any further incident, but Aistrope says past experience and the realities of the current jail facility make security a serious deficiency.
“The safety of the employees and the public is the number one concern,” he said.
Even the handicap entrance has its perils. If a person in a wheel chair climbed the ramp and turned toward the door at the top, going backwards even a few inches might result in a fall of five feet.
Insurance companies have complained about risks and Iowa's Department of Corrections, who oversees the state's jail standards, has begun to demand that the county make progress.
“I have to tolerate it because it's all we have, but it's not good,” Aistrope said.
Eight deputies, 10 reserve deputies, jailers, dispatchers and office staff share the old jail building with up to nine inmates.
Jail standards require the sheriff to separate prisoners who are sentenced from those who are not.
Prisoners with mental issues and those deemed vulnerable due to handicaps must also be kept separate.
Fremont County has a single cell room where there are six beds and a smaller, adjacent room where there are two or three beds.
Page 2 of 2 - There's no facility for visitation of inmates, so a television monitor and phone are stationed near the front door. A inmate with a visitor sits by a monitor in the jail cell, where other inmates can see and interact with the visitor.
Aistrope says there are privacy issues for people coming in to report a crime and a need for more interview space to talk with suspects.
“If we have three suspects there's nowhere to take them, but right here,” he said, glancing around the small booking room that features a couch equipped with handcuffs, a desk and blood alcohol testing equipment.
“You would like to separate the three suspects to interview them, because the stories always match when they're all together,” he said.
During a recent murder investigation, there were six deputies and four officers from the Department of Criminal Investigations trying to work from the building, many finding a chair in a kitchen space.
The sheriff says the building poses operational issues, but it has structural issues as well.
For the last two years, the building has shifted so that the top edges of the iron jail cell doors had to be grinded off so they would close again.
In the basement, the brick mortar piles up on the floor as it peels away from the foundation walls. “It will probably never be feasible to remodel this,” Aistrope said.
He said if the county decided not to have a jail, it would pay $79 a day to keep inmates elsewhere. It would still have to have holding cells and a booking room and he said it will still need a secure area for the 911 dispatching.
He said in modern detention centers, a suspect already in a patrol car would be brought into the secured area through a bay door.
Now, he said, deputies have to walk a suspect into the facility and at Fremont County that sometimes means coaxing an uncooperative person up a flight of stairs.
“No one wants to hear the sheriff go on about how he needs a new jail,” Aistrope said, “so I'm just giving tours and letting the facts speak for themselves. The sheriff's of this county have kept this building up well for the past 120 years, but we won't be able to keep it up much longer,” he said.