Perfect storm for Iowa prisons needs immediate attention


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Corrections officers throughout the nine state prisons in Iowa are concerned about the safety and security of institution workers, prisoners, and the public.

In a July 5 press conference, corrections officers belonging to Iowa Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees presented their concerns regarding understaffing at all nine state institutions. Their concerns stem from funding cuts, which continue to result in understaffing and, ultimately, safety and security problems. Understaffed, overcrowded prisons should prompt the state government to act immediately to alleviate the problems — by greater funding, prison reform, or both.

AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan asserts that the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, commonly known as the Oakdale prison, is extremely understaffed. Today, there are 57 fewer staffing positions than in 2010.

“We did not have many problems until the money was taken from the budget,” Homan told the *DI* Editorial Board. “Understaffing has resulted in things such as one night when a nurse and a custodian were the only ones running the unit.”

Homan said the Oakdale prison gave back $1.7 million to the Iowa Department of Corrections in order to help fund the eight other institutions. However, more than $300,000 of that money was kept by the Iowa Department of Corrections and distributed throughout its administrative offices.

Fred Scaletta of the Department of Corrections released a statement in response to the AFSCME press conference in which he wrote that the department recognizes the concerns presented by the AFSCME.

“The department will continue to work to provide safety, security, treatment, and reentry services within the appropriated resources available to us,” wrote Scaletta.

In the statement, he also addressed funding for future correctional officer positions.

“The department is grateful Gov. [Terry] Branstad recommended and the Legislature approved funding for 40 additional correctional officer positions in the current FY2012 budget,” Scaletta wrote.

Homan says that these 40 correctional officer positions don’t apply to the Oakdale prison. Twenty officers will be assigned to the Anamosa State Penitentiary, and the other 20 officers will go to the Clarinda Correctional Facility.

“There is still a shortage of officers. We have routinely not been provided breaks or meal hours. The officers don’t even have an opportunity to take a five-minute break,” Homan said. “They refuse to hire overtime. We then run short on officers, and this becomes stressful for the officers who are on duty. It’s putting everybody in jeopardy.”

Poor working conditions arising from understaffing breed hostility, resentment, and sloppy work. With Iowa’s prisons 23 percent over capacity (nowhere near the level at which the federal government intervenes but still worrying), there’s no room for human error — the risk of which increases as employees are forced to do more.

“Today at the Newton Correctional Facility, we have correctional councilors working the living unit — that’s not their job,” Homan said. “They aren’t trained to do that. Next they’ll be using other unqualified workers. It’s not safe.”

Not only is it unsafe for the guards, it’s also unsafe for prisoners. Poor conditions also belie the notion that Iowa’s prisons are places of rehabilitation. Perhaps a punitive philosophy can justify unsafe housing for inmates, but many of them are eventually going to be released into society, and rehabilitation ought to be a goal. Adequately funded prisons, preferably with numerous opportunities for education and counseling, benefit guards, prisoners, and society.

Of the 500-person staff at the Oakdale institution, approximately 150 of whom are administrative workers, Homan represents the concerns of roughly 350 union members. Even given this number, Deputy Warden Greg Ort told the DI Editorial Board, “We don’t feel that there’s an impact regarding funding or staffing negatively affecting the department.”

This lack of ability to see things as the corrections officers see them is contributing to the continued decrease in staffing and hindering the safety and security of the prisons.

There’s a broader picture here: Iowa is not the only state facing overcrowding and other serious threats to prison safety. The nation’s prison population has expanded even as crime has decreased, and many states are considering privatization — or, as with California last month, are being forced to release some nonviolent offenders.

The perfect storm for America’s prisons is here in Iowa: Understaffing due to budget cuts and overcrowding due to both a bloated criminal-justice system and a lack of funds for expansion.

Branstad’s spokesman, Tim Albrecht, told the Editorial Board that the governor has yet to act on the portion of the budget pertinent to the prison system, but he expects to do so in the next 30 days.

Hopefully, Branstad will work to alleviate the fiscal and practical stress on Iowa’s prisons.

Safety and security should be prioritized. And perhaps, somewhere, we should reform our prison system, too, with prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders and evidence-based rehabilitation programs.

It would protect both prison workers and our state.

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