Democrats say prisons need a $34 million increase

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, left, and several other Democrats visited Anamosa State Penitentiary on April 23, 2021. (Screenshot of event livestream)

Democratic lawmakers called Friday for a $34 million budget increase and 300 new staff positions at the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers announced the proposal after a tour of Anamosa State Penitentiary, which they described as understaffed and overcrowded. The trip came one month after two inmates attacked staff at the prison, killing a correctional officer and a registered nurse.

Now, as lawmakers work to finalize a budget for next years, Democrats and union leaders are calling for significant funding increases for prison staffing and maintenance. 

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, and other Democrats held a Friday morning press conference outside the Anamosa facility. Wahls said he saw areas of the prison where inmates were “vastly outnumbering” staff members.

“We heard multiple times that, if you don’t have enough staff, you can’t follow the policies that keep this facility safe,” he said.

Wahls called for an increase of $34 million to the Department of Corrections: $16 million to fully fund the department and fill vacant positions, and another $18 million to add 300 new staff positions. Democrats and AFSCME president Danny Homan, who represents Iowa’s correctional officers, also advocated for a return of collective bargaining rights that had been changed by a 2017 law.

Iowa’s prison staff has fallen 17% between 2009 and 2021, according to data obtained by WOI TV. In that same time frame, the number of inmates has fallen 11%. Democrats and Homan said  many of those lost positions were no longer included in the budget.

“I am beside myself when I go into a cell block that has 300 offenders in it and two prison guards,” Anderson said.

House lawmakers proposed an additional $20 million for the Department of Corrections. The Senate proposed a $6.3 million increase. Lawmakers will be working in the coming weeks to compromise on budget proposals and end the 2021 legislative session.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters Thursday that lawmakers were “prepared to react” to several investigations into the Anamosa incident and Iowa’s prison system.

“I think the House stands ready to see what those not only internal, but those outside reports will look like,” Grassley said. “At that point, we will have to evaluate what steps need to be taken.”