An attack that left two dead at the Anamosa State Penitentiary has heightened debate over prison funding. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Corrections)
From school districts to workplaces to restaurants, Iowans across the state are shutting their doors and keeping to themselves to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But for inmates in Iowa’s jail and prisons, social distancing is not an option.
The close quarters and transient influx of new people behind bars creates a precarious situation where a highly contagious virus like COVID-19 could spread and expose not only inmates but also the general public.
To mitigate a possible outbreak and create more room in Iowa’s overcrowded prisons, the Iowa Department of Corrections plans to expedite the release of about 700 inmates who were already determined eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole.
“We’re trying to be more efficient in our area and free up some space,” said Beth Skinner, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections.
By accelerating the release wait list, more beds will open up, which can allow the correctional facility to move inmates more easily if an outbreak does occur in a prison. Iowa’s eight prisons are already about 23% overcrowded, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections daily statistics.
But releasing people without offering them a place to go doesn’t help either, Skinner said. She said they’re working to ensure all parolees have a place to stay once they return to their communities.
“It has to be a suitable, safe place,” Skinner said.
Prisoners medically screened before intake or release
Beyond accelerating the release of people, the Iowa Department of Corrections is also medically screening all new inmates and people who are released from their facilities, Skinner said.
On average, 500 new inmates are transferred to the prisons on a monthly basis, Skinner said.
Correctional workers will take their temperatures and give them medical questionnaires to fill out. Because symptoms of COVID-19 may not immediately show, new inmates are automatically quarantined for 14 days.
Visitations are also temporarily suspended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but the department is examining reducing the costs of mail and phone calls, Skinner said.
Inmates and correctional officers have access to soap and water and employees are also provided hand sanitizer.
A “huge piece” in preventing outbreaks will be COVID-19 tests, however, Skinner said. Each correctional facility will receive five to six tests, which can help them evaluate people who may have symptoms and quarantine them.
“We get the people who have the flu. What’s different with this one is the unknown,” Skinner said.
ACLU: Iowa should do more to reduce prison population
But an Iowa civil rights group believes the state should go even further to reduce the density of the prison population and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
ACLU of Iowa is calling for comprehensive changes to law enforcement and correctional facilities practices.
Veronica Fowler, spokesperson for ACLU of Iowa, said limiting arrests and releasing more people not only protects the jail and prison populations, but also the general public who may be exposed to COVID-19 by a correctional officer.
“We have in any one day about 16,000 people, essentially behind bars,” Fowler said of Iowa’s prisons and jails. “That is the equivalent of Clive or Boone or Oskaloosa. We’re not talking about tiny little populations.”
The organization is calling for limiting the number of arrests, people in county jails and number of people being held on pretrial detention. Additionally, the group is asking the state to commute people with medical conditions who would have been released in the next two years and commuting people who were scheduled to be released in a year.
Another concern is an order from the Iowa Supreme Court, Fowler said.
On March 14, the Iowa Supreme Court ordered all criminal jury trials be postponed until April 20. Fowler said that could result in some inmates staying behind bars longer than necessary.
Fowler said ACLU plans to send a letter to the governor and state officials detailing their requests.
“If all these people get sick, that’s a health crisis that overwhelms the system,” Fowler said.
In Johnson County, 37 inmates were being held in the county jail. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 with 22 confirmed cases so far. The facility was originally built to house 46 inmates, but by double-bunking inmates, it can hold 92, according to The Gazette.
No plans for early release from expanded Polk County jail
At the Polk County Jail, there are no plans to expedite the release of prisoners, said Lt. Heath Osberg of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2008, Polk County finished construction on a new jail facility that holds 1,500 inmate beds and is tripled in size from the previous jail.
Because of the larger size, Osberg, said there is not overcrowding in the jail. Around 749 inmates were being held in the jail as of Friday afternoon.
The difference between jails and prisons, however, is the more transient flow of people coming in and out.
Between Wednesday and Thursday, 24 inmates were booked into Polk County Jail, according to its website. Eleven of those detained have already been released.
Osberg said inmates who are brought into the facility are getting their temperatures checked and filling out medical questionnaires.
He said any changes in the release of inmates would have to come from county attorneys and Iowa courts.
Fowler said she hopes state officials stay aware of Iowa’s jailed population, particularly people who can’t afford to pay bond and those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“The bottom line is that we already have an over-incarceration problem in our country and our state,” Fowler said.
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