Black Liberation Movement renews call for prison reform in Iowa

    The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement has again called on the state of Iowa to make significant changes in policies and practices related to prisons and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Getty Images)

    The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement has again called on the state of Iowa to make significant changes in policies and practices related to prisons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The organization, in connection with the Des Moines Black Lives Matter Collective and the Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America, said Thursday that incarcerated people inside Iowa prisons are “effectively facing death sentences as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.”

    As of May 10, the Department of Corrections has reported 19 deaths of incarcerated Iowans related to COVID-19. The group alleges there has been one known suicide as a result of stress brought on by the pandemic.

    All but one of the Iowa prisons has had a major virus outbreak that have affected more than half of the prison’s inmates, the organization said, and there have been multiple reports of prison staff failing to follow health and safety protocols related to the pandemic.

    The organization is renewing its call, first made in January, for Iowa law enforcement officials to “minimize the number of individuals being arrested,” and is asking that parole boards release people already incarcerated in order to decrease the prison and jail populations enough to allow for social distancing and other safety protocols.

    The group also wants the Iowa Department of Corrections to practice effective quarantine policies including those related to facility transfers and deliveries made to individual cells.

    The organization also is asking that all prison and jail staff in Iowa be tested at least once each week if they have not been vaccinated, and is asking that staff who have refused a vaccine be barred from working in direct contact with inmates.

    The organization’s other demands include “access to entertainment” for inmates subjected COVID-19 quarantine, “healthy and nutritious quality food on a daily basis,” and jail staff who can communicate with inmates in the inmates’ first language. They are also asking that all incarcerated workers be “paid a living wage” that is equal to the wages of non-incarcerated workers performing the same tasks.

    Earlier this year, when the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement first issued its list of demands, the Iowa Department of Corrections said the agency disagrees with the organization’s characterization of the DOC’s efforts to mitigate COVID-19. The department said its mortality rate was roughly 0.3%, as compared to the nationwide mortality rate of approximately 1.67%.

    Clark Kauffman
    Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.