Two weeks after Anamosa attack, lawmakers, union reps spar over prison funding

Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, speaks April 6 outside the State Capitol about a House budget proposal that would allocate an additional $20 million to the Department of Corrections. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The number of the day was $20 million. That’s how much House Republicans want to increase funding for the state prison system.

Rep. Gary Worthan, chair of the Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee, said the Department of Corrections asked for slightly over $22 million to do salary adjustments for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021. The House countered with a budget increase of over $20 million.

“We’re trying to bulk them back up, improve staff numbers and so on there,” said Worthan, R-Storm Lake.

The proposal passed along party lines in a 5-4 vote, with Democrats voting against.

Danny Homan, president of the AFSCME union that represents correctional officers, said Tuesday the funding increase wouldn’t be enough to do the additional hiring necessary in the department. 

“That $20 million does not cover the salary increases of the last two years,” Homan said.

He cited a March attack at Anamosa State Penitentiary, where an inmate killed two staff members at the prison, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. In a press conference on the Capitol steps, Homan argued the tragedy was a result of insufficient staffing and funding.

“Why did this attack happen? It happened because, for a minimum of 10 to 12 years, the Department of Corrections has been underfunded …,” he said. “They are again underfunding the Department of Corrections by at least $2 million.”

Democrats Rep. Todd Prichard of Charles City and Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville, also spoke at the union press conference. Several Democrats joined the audience.

“We stand in strong support of every single one of the requests made to protect our corrections officers and the folks who show up every single day to keep our state safe,” Wahls said.

House Speaker Pat Grassley fired back in his own impromptu press conference on the Capitol steps. He noted Democrats had not proposed any amendments to the budget and that the funding increase was the largest in over 10 years and had been in the works since before the Anamosa attack.

Grassley said the Department of Corrections could choose how to allocate the additional $20 million.

“If they choose to use it to fill those (full-time job openings), I think that would be a good use of the money,” Grassley said. “I know they also have salary obligations as well.”

He said further investigation into the incident would reveal what exactly happened and how it could be prevented in the future.

“If there are further fixes that need to be (addressed), we’ll obviously engage in those,” Grassley said. “But I would say, as recent as this is, it’s hard for me to point to what those would be and make any amendments.”

Senate Republicans proposed only a $4 million increase to the Department of Corrections. The House and Senate will need to compromise on a figure by the end of the session. Grassley said he’s confident that Republicans will want to be “at the higher end of that range.”