Blackhawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson gave us an exclusive inside view of Blackhawk County Jail. Sheriff Thompson is in his third term as Blackhawk county sheriff. He got his undergraduate degree in communication at UNI.
There are around 240 inmates at the jail right now (out of 272 beds) who are all under direct supervision, meaning a deputy is locked with the inmates in groups of 50 for 24 hours a day. There are 3 deputy shifts of 8 hours. The average length of time that an inmate spends in Blackhawk county jail used to be around 90 days but is now closer to 4-5 months and any time someone is sentenced to something for more than a year, they go to prison. Sheriff Thompson mentioned that about a third of the inmate population was there on what he called a “forceable felony”. He has 92 deputies and 7 detention officers. The administrators and other staff members make up the 148 total staff members.
We visited the jail on a day where several bills were filed by the Iowa House of Representatives. The main bill that Sheriff Thompson was keeping an eye on was the “stand your ground”. He explained that in Iowa, you can shoot someone if they break into your house and you feel threatened (self defense). The new bill is looking to expand that. Sheriff Thompson’s concern is where then will they draw the line. A provision of the bill states that kids as young as 6 years old can handle a firearm if an adult is present. He also talked about how in 2011, the legislature took discretion away from sheriff’s in terms of providing training to carry a handgun. Now, sheriff’s can’t infringe on people carrying if they’ve had online training. Sheriff Thompson argued that there is no online training that can actually prepare someone to properly handle a firearm.
Thompson was wearing a body camera as part of what he called “The Ferguson effect” and he told us that there were around 130 cameras around the facility. He showed us what was on his belt and that included: handcuffs, gun, extra magazine, radio, and pepper spray. Sheriff Thompson does not carry a taser on his belt but others do. I thought it was really cool when he showed us his “point blank body armor”. I was not expecting it to feel the way that it did. He said that it would stop up to a .308 rifle which means that the armor is extremely strong to be able to withstand that type of firepower. Sheriff Thompson told us that during a heavy year, his department handles around 360 cases and something that I found very interesting and also very sad is that he said: “almost 80% of crimes that happen in Blackhawk county have roots in drugs”.
When asked about the media, Sheriff Thompson said that he is careful how he frames and releases information to the media but he also keeps them close. He felt that it was “very important to let them know they’re appreciated because I need them. Better relationships lead to more favorable media coverage”. He also stated that his transparency with the media buys him credibility so whenever something happens in his department, he takes the old “rip the band aid off” approach and alerts the media asap. He feels like it’s better to take the punches and then follow up the statements with decisive action. I really liked when he said: “there is a code of ethics that you have to follow and that is what we expect”. Sheriff Thompson’s character really came through in that statement and I feel good having a sheriff like that in charge.
Sheriff Thompson took us on a tour of the jail after talking to us and it was not at all what I expected. It was not nearly as loud as I thought it would be. I thought it was really interesting when he took us into the library and explained about all the different types of programs that the jail offers to keep the inmates busy and to try and help them. He talked about making sure the inmates leave with something, whatever that is. They really make an effort to make it as good as it can be (even though it’s prison, so it obviously sucks). I was also kind of struck with how easy going and friendly the entire staff seemed to be. You kind of forget with everything portrayed on TV that they’re people just like the rest of us. It was really nice to see Sheriff Thompson laughing with members of the staff.
My dad told me a story once about his childhood. My grandpa was a cop in Waterloo for like 25 years and one day when my dad was in middle school, my grandpa took him to the jail in Waterloo. He locked my dad into a cell and told him: “this is a cell, don’t end up here”. My dad told my brother and I the story when we were younger and this visit really just reminded me of that story and reinforced that idea. I did have a good time with Sheriff Thompson and I learned a lot. I am thankful that by being in this class, I’ve had the opportunities to do things many people don’t get to do.