Inmates not publicly charged with assaulting Iowa correctional employees

Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 10:43 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Teri Brayton, according to court documents, used a weapon fashioned from an office chair while trying to kill a correctional officer at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, also called Oakdale, in Coralville in January 2022.

According to court documents, Brayton was charged with attempted murder, pled guilty and sentenced to at least 90 months in prison. The attempted murder happened almost a year after two other inmates killed two different employees, Robert McFarland and Lorena Shulte, within the Department of Corrections.

Sara McFarland, who is Robert’s widow, said the murder attempt described in court documents sounds similar to the way her husband died in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Then, inmates acquired hammers from a work program inside the prison and killed Nurse Lorena Shulte and Correctional Officer Robert McFarland during an escape attempt.

“It breaks my heart,” McFarland said. “It breaks my heart because I know another family had to go through that panic and just that feeling, that pit in your stomach. And every time Robert would get hurt or something would happen, you hope that was the last time, but you know that’s probably not going to happen.”

According to court documents, Brayton didn’t receive a sentencing enhancement for a crime against a peace office because Iowa law doesn’t recognize correctional officers as peace officers. Regardless, Brayton’s sentence can’t begin until he completes his current prison sentence because he was in a correctional facility.

The Department of Corrections classified this incident as an assault on a staff member that resulted in serious injury. According to data, that our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received from a public records request, shows around 35 inmates over around five years were also involved in assaults on corrections employees resulting a serious injury.

Even though every County Attorney’s Office with a corrections facility in their county said they took every case from the department of corrections, a TV9 analysis of court records shows 30% of those inmates weren’t charged.

Calhoun County Attorney Tina Meth-Farington (R), who has the North Central Correctional Facility in her county, said it’s possible those inmates could have gotten a disciplinary hearing inside the prison if public charges were never filed. She said these disciplinary hearings act similar to court procedures with punishments and administrative law judges, but aren’t accessible to the public.

“They can lose some of their good time credits and might lose their ability to work outside the prison,” Meth-Farington said.

Martin Castellanos, according to disciplinary hearing documents our i9 Team received through a public records request, lost 951 days of earned time and earned 90 days of disciplinary detention after he threatened staff with a metal shank. According to the document, officials found three weapons in his cell when Castellanos stabbed a correctional officer and sent him to the hospital after being hit with chemical agents. TV9 did find at least one case where public charges weren’t filed and the Department of Corrections didn’t have documents related to a disciplinary hearing.

According to data our TV9 i9 Investigative Team received from a records request, around 200 inmates assaulted a correctional officer without a serious injury and around 129 inmates threw substances on offenders. TV9 didn’t go through court records to see how many of those inmates were charged with crimes.

“They [inmates] are always looking to find a way to hurt somebody,” said Cathie McFarland, McFarland’s mother.

Before Robert McFarland was killed, Sara McFarland said her husband went to the hospital at least three times due to being injured while working for the Department of Corrections.

“I had found out one time he went to the hospital and not told me because he didn’t want to worry me,” McFarland said. “So, I don’t even know, I’m not even sure what happened at that part.”

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team asked the Department of Corrections multiple times for an on-camera interview, but was asked to provide questions in writing multiple times. Nick Crawford, who is a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said in an email that working with an inmate population comes with risks. He said those risks are the rationale for the department to put staff safety at the forefront of everything it does.

“This department strives every day to keep staff safe,” Crawford wrote. We will continue to provide the training, resources, and tools necessary to put our team members in the best position to safely do the important work that keeps our communities safe.”

He listed achievements like moving to a centralized new employee training model, the addition of body scanners and adding a general mail scanning system to curb the introduction of illicit drugs into our facilities.

After Robert McFarland and Lorena Shulte were killed, the Department of Corrections received an increase in funding worth $20 Million. A former spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told TV9 in June 2021 it would focus on hires for open positions, make improvements to prison security and develop hiring and retention incentives.

The Department of Corrections also spent $500,000 on a security review and released a four-page summary in 2021. The report identified operational improvements along with recommendations for the department related to training, security controls, policy/compliance, training, staff supervision and system crowding. The report from CGL Companies also highlighted recruitment and retention as the “most serious issue that correctional systems across the country face” including a high number of nurse vacancies creating the potential to negatively affect standards of health.

According to the State Employee Salary Book, fewer people received a paycheck for being a correctional officer in the Anamosa State Penitentiary in the 2022 fiscal year compared to the 2020 fiscal year. However, some prisons like the Oakdale and the Rockwell City facility saw more people receive a paycheck for being a correctional officer.

Although the department has provided the number of vacancies for past stories, it no longer provides those numbers due to security concerns. According to a report to the state legislature in February, the Department of Corrections had 288 overall prison vacancies. The report said 203 of those positions were for correctional officers or senior correctional officers and projected to spend around $8 Million on overtime. A spokesperson told TV9 in April 2021 the department spent $2.6 Million during the 2020 fiscal year.

Danny Homan, who is the former president of AFSCME Council 61 and union leader for the correctional officers, said the overtime is created because the department doesn’t have enough staff in April 2021.

“They’re calling for 10 to 15 people to work over[time]. That is, either you come in on your day off or you get mandated to work another shift,” he said. “I’ve talked to one officer who worked seven days in a row on double shifts. So he worked 16 hours a day for seven days.”

Homan said the number of overtime hours causes workers to make mistakes while they are on the job.

Lorena Shulte’s family, according to court documents, is suing the Iowa Department of Corrections for failing to provide a safe working environment, failing to provide sufficient staffing, and failing to provide sufficient staff training as some of the faults that led to the fatal situation.

Sara McFarland said she’s continuing to advocate for new legislation, which would add correctional workers to the list of public safety employees for collective bargaining rights, among other changes. She said she’s continuing to fight for these changes because she wants to make her husband proud and is concerned another employee will die.

“It’s going to happen again, and it’s just like Roberts’ death, not that it was for nothing,” McFarland said. “But, it just didn’t make as big of an impact as it should of.”