Union calls for Iowa prisons to shelter in place for four weeks amid case spike

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 10:29 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - In the last three weeks, the Iowa Department of Corrections has reported six COVID-19-related deaths — one employee and five inmates, including the death of an inmate at Anamosa State Penitentiary reported Monday night.

Anamosa is where the largest prison outbreak is happening right now, with 83 inmates and 33 staff with active infections as of Monday night. 735 inmates and 107 staff were previously infected at the facility but have since recovered.

Overall, 213 inmates and 96 workers were reported positive in the Department of Corrections as of Monday, and there have been nine total inmate deaths related to COVID-19. Nearly 3,000 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic began.

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, Iowa’s largest public employees union, describes corrections employees as “working inside a petri dish called a prison.”

“Nobody should die inside one of our correctional institutions. No inmate should have to catch COVID-19 and then pass away,” Homan said.

The union is now calling for the Department of Corrections to shut down for four weeks and not allow any inmate transfers within or into its facilities. However, Homan said previous pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

“I have been begging for weeks to shut corrections down. No more intakes. Nobody coming into the system,” Homan said.

The Department of Corrections said stopping admissions would shift that burden to county jails, which oftentimes can’t handle so many inmates for an extended period of time and are trying to keep their own populations down to prevent outbreaks.

“While we appreciate input from members of the public and our many stakeholders across the state, anyone calling for the stopping of all admissions into the prison system shows their lack of understanding of the criminal justice system in general, and how this action impacts our partners in law enforcement and Iowa’s communities across the state,” Cord Overton, Department of Corrections Communications Director, said, in a statement.

“All due respect to the sheriffs out there in every county, all 99 counties in this state — sorry, I’m more concerned with the staff that work inside the Department of Corrections, and I’m concerned for the inmates, that we don’t have any more of them die,” Homan said, during a virtual news conference Monday.

The Department of Corrections said it will distribute thousands of N95 masks to its workers soon, something Overton said it couldn’t do earlier to such an extent because of PPE shortages. Overton said new inmates being admitted into the system have to take multiple COVID tests and go through a 14-day quarantine before they’re put with the general population.

“Regarding the transfer of inmates between facilities, the staff of our department have a rigorous process to ensure COVID-positive inmates are not being transferred into a prison’s general population,” Overton said. “Prior to a transfer, each inmate is quarantined and tested for COVID-19. Upon their negative test result, they will be transferred, and then quarantined at the receiving prison for an additional 14 days, and tested at least three additional times during the quarantine to ensure the maximum safety for inmates and staff.”

But, Homan asserted employees have said that protocol isn’t consistent across all facilities.

“We have to have a consistent program that applies to every institution, every halfway house, all of the Department of Corrections, not just putting words on a paper and then ignoring them,” Homan said.

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