County jail released at least 100 inmates too early, state auditors allege

By: - August 18, 2021 1:04 pm

(Photo by Getty Images)

A former Buchanan County Jail administrator deliberately released inmates before their sentences were served and in some cases kept them in jail past their court-ordered sentence, according to a new report from the Iowa Auditor of State’s Office.

The audit of the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, covers a two-year period from July 1, 2018, through the middle of August 2020, when Bill Wolfgram served as the county sheriff. He retired in December, amid a state investigation into the jail’s practices.

The state auditors identified several concerns as a result of their review, including:

  • 101 instances in which an individual’s time served in jail was less, by one or two days, than the court-ordered sentence, for which no reasonable explanation was offered.
  • Eight instances in which an individual’s time in jail was less, by four days to 53 days, than the court-ordered sentence. In each of those cases, the individuals were improperly released by former Jail Administrator Russell West without an approved court order.
  • 40 instances in which an individual’s time in jail exceeded the court-ordered jail time, for which no explanation was offered due to insufficient recordkeeping.
  • The auditors reported 132 instances in which insufficient information was available to determine whether the inmates had properly served the jail time for which they were sentenced.
  • 104 instances in which the jail time served by inmates was not recorded on the booking report used to log an individual’s jail sentence.

In addition, auditors reported that a comparison of the number of days served to the number of days billed to an inmate for their stay in jail identified instances where the two sets of days were in conflict.

The auditors said it was not possible to determine whether all revenue collected by the jail was properly deposited because there was insufficient supporting documentation.

West was hired by the county as a deputy in June 1998, a position he held until he was placed on paid administrative leave in May 2020. He also served as the Buchanan County Jail’s top administrator and supervised jail operations, specifically the intake, housing, and release of inmates.

West was assisted in his work by Tammy Steenbock, who had been hired as a deputy in May 1996. Like West, she was placed on paid administrative leave in May 2020. In her role with the sheriff’s office, Steenbock worked as a jailer and was responsible for room-and-board billings and maintaining the jail’s electronic inmate and accounting records.

Both Steenbock and West resigned in June 2020.

The audit was triggered by an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation probe of  West and Steenbock for releasing inmates who had yet to serve their full sentences.

A sheriff’s office employee had reported seeing an individual, who was supposed to be incarcerated in the jail, out in the community. A DCI agent spoke to both that individual and West and discovered West had released the individual to seek dental care. The agent learned that a “gentlemen’s agreement” had been reached whereby the individual agreed to return to jail to serve the remainder of his jail sentence once he received his dental care. Asked why he agreed to the deal, West reportedly told the DCI the inmate had “been here for a long time” and so he decided to “cut him loose.”

West also is alleged to have told the DCI agent it was not unusual for him to release inmates a day or two early, particularly once the COVID-19 pandemic struck. He also said inmates were released early in part for the sake of convenience. He reportedly told the DCI he did not think he had been releasing any “terrible people.”

Auditors recommended the sheriff’s office implement procedures to ensure the jail’s internal controls are strengthened with regard to adequate recordkeeping, the segregation of duties, and periodic comparisons of jail time served to jail time sentenced.

Copies of the report have been filed with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Buchanan County Attorney’s Office and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.