Citing prison-rape law, county says video of fired jailer is confidential

By: - December 7, 2022 3:31 pm

The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Photo via Google Earth)

An Iowa County that is refusing to make public video of a jailer physically abusing an inmate is relying on a federal law that pertains to prison rape.

State records show that Stephanie Cox worked for Pottawattamie County as a full-time detention officer until she was fired in September. On Aug. 8, Cox allegedly was captured on the jail’s surveillance-camera system pulling an inmate’s hair several times and then “flicking” the inmate’s ear, which was consistent with allegations made by the inmate.

Cox allegedly claimed she thought the inmate was joking when he asked her to stop, but a judge who later presided over a hearing on her claim for unemployment benefits ruled that regardless of Cox’s intentions, “the acts of pulling hair and flicking ears are elevated from annoying to degrading given the extreme inequality of power between the parties.”

The judge added that Cox’s actions “may even constitute criminal assault.”

The Iowa Capital Dispatch recently asked Pottawattamie County for a copy of the surveillance video. Assistant County Attorney Leanne Gifford said Wednesday that she had looked into the matter and decided the video will not be made public.

“Producing (the video), I believe, would violate federal law under the Prison Rape Elimination Act standard 115.61,” Gifford said, citing a statute that prohibits jail officials from disclosing information related to “a sexual abuse report.”

Asked whether the inmate or anyone else had ever alleged some form of sexual abuse, Gifford said the allegation was vague and only referenced “inappropriate touching.” When investigators looked into the matter, Gifford said, it was with the intent of determining whether that touching might amount to sexual abuse.

Gifford added that because the video shows jail infrastructure and “some of the security measures used within the jail,” it is protected from disclosure by Iowa law.

The state law Gifford cited allows public bodies to keep confidential information “concerning physical infrastructure, cyber security, critical infrastructure, security procedures or emergency preparedness,” but only if public disclosure “could reasonably be expected to jeopardize” lives or property.

In recent years, the county has invited television news cameras to the jail to display new inmate-transportation vans, body scanners, security cameras and other security measures that were upgraded in the aftermath of a deputy being killed by an inmate.

Although Cox was fired three months ago, Gifford said the video showing the jailer’s interaction with the inmate is still part of a “personnel investigation” that’s being conducted by the county and said there is “continuing litigation over the matter.”

While no lawsuits have been filed in the case, she said, Cox is appealing her firing and the matter is now headed to an arbitrator.

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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.