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Fort Dodge Prison Struggles To Meet Basic Needs Of Incarcerated Iowans During Coronavirus Lockdown

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Jason Farrar
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The state prison in Fort Dodge is struggling to meet basic needs of the men housed there, according to messages and a recorded call shared with IPR.

Incarcerated Iowans and their family members say the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility has struggled to meet their basic human needs, as a coronavirus outbreak batters the prison. Locked in their cells 23 hours a day, some inmates say they’ve been unable to take showers for days at a time, or have waited hours for officers to bring them drinking water.

Since the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility went into lockdown on July 1, Jacob Noelting-Petra says he has been confined to his cell for upwards of 23 hours a day.

He waits for officers to bring him food, which he says largely consists of sack meals and junk food like cookies and chips.

He’s allowed out to go to the bathroom, but had to wait days for a shower.

“When we first started this lockdown, we went four days without a shower. The whole unit did. And then they started doing like where they started giving people 20 minute rec times,” Noelting-Petra said.

Noelting-Petra made the statements to his girlfriend Savannah Moore, who recorded the call and shared it with IPR with his consent.

“Obviously this is like a tense time right now. You can feel the tension in the air because of all the uncertainty,” Noelting-Petra added. “No one knows anything.”

Another person incarcerated at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, or FDCF, reported that on multiple days it was after 4 p.m. before an officer brought him drinking water for the day. That’s according to prison email messages, (called offender mail or o-mail), that were shared with IPR.

They haven't brought water all day...And I don't trust it if they did at this point...[It's] getting tense, because we can't do anything, no laundry, no washing our bowls. - a man at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, whose name is being withheld because he fears retaliation

“They haven’t brought water all day…And I don’t trust it if they did at this point…[It’s] getting tense, because we can’t do anything, no laundry, no washing our bowls…These people are treating us like sh*t,” the man wrote in a message dated July 3 at 5:56 p.m.

Family members of other incarcerated individuals voiced concerns about access to water as well.

“I don’t know for certain and that’s one of my biggest concerns,” said a woman named Kelly in reference to whether her brother at FDCF has access to water. We’re withholding her last name to protect her family’s privacy.

“Unlimited clean water to stay hydrated and fresh air,” she said she told him. “That was the first thing I wrote him. Mask, water, air.”

Incarcerated individuals and family members say PPE use at the prison has been spotty. One individual reported seeing officers not wearing masks on July 1, though they said they later saw officers wearing masks and face shields.

Noelting-Petra says inmates were given three masks a couple months ago, but cleaning, sanitizing and wearing them properly hasn’t been strictly enforced.

Major disruptions to prison operations during lockdown

Individuals incarcerated at FDCF say they hope for 20 minutes out a day. Some may get more, some may get less.

In that time they may have to choose whether to take a shower, or call their family, or transfer money to their account so they can afford to call their family.

“He can call me within that 20 minutes. If he decides he wants to forgo a shower,” said a central Iowa woman whose husband is imprisoned in FDCF. We’re withholding her name to protect her family’s privacy.

Incarcerated Iowans and family members tell IPR that while conditions have improved in recent days, basic functions of the prison have been disrupted under lockdown.

They say that’s because it’s typically the incarcerated individuals themselves who keep the facility running.

“We cook, we clean, we do the dishes, we do the cooking…we do everything. So, and the staff just basically are just babysitters. And they oversee to make sure like the day to days work,” Noelting-Petra said. “So now that we’re on lockdown, they’re doing everything.”

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents state corrections employees, corroborated this.

“Those folks don't have the tools that they need to have to do their jobs safely and adequately at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, or at any correctional facility,” Homan said.

Homan declined to put IPR in contact with union members who work at FDCF, saying they fear retaliation.

Prison withholds coronavirus test results

Despite being in lockdown 23 hours a day, Noelting-Petra is technically not in quarantine, because as far as he knows, he doesn’t have COVID-19.

But days after he was first tested, he says he still hasn't been given his results.

Those folks don't have the tools that they need to have to do their jobs safely and adequately at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, or at any correctional Facility. - Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61

Others are in the same situation, according to o-mail messages shared with IPR and interviews with family members of inmates.

If staff have not taken them into isolation, those incarcerated at FDCF say they’re assuming they don’t have the virus. But they don’t know for sure.

“That's probably one of the worst things about this whole situation is that with all the uncertainty and all of the unknown, and everyone's on edge with the tense vibes and everything is that, no one knows if they're positive or negative,” Noelting-Petra said.

Those who do test positive for COVID-19 are put in solitary confinement, Noelting-Petra says, with no way to communicate with the outside.

“Putting somebody in solitary is possibly the worst way both physiologically as well as mentally that you could handle this for the patient,” said Megan Srinivas, who is an infectious disease physician in Fort Dodge and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“This is a type of virus where you're breathing fine in the morning, and eight hours later, you need oxygen support. And if somebody is not there watching you or realizing your sudden drop, that could be a very dire consequence,” she said.

One of the worst things about this whole situation is that with all the uncertainty and all of the unknown, and everyone's on edge with the tense vibes and everything is that, no one knows if they're positive or negative. - Jacob Noelting-Petra, incarcerated at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility

Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed the outbreak at FDCF earlier this week and announced that 700 additional tests are being processed for incarcerated individuals and staff at the prison.

As of Thursday afternoon, 62 people incarcerated there had tested positive, according to state data.

At least eight staffers there have had the virus too, though three have since recovered.

Homan says that Reynolds’ efforts to prevent the outbreak and respond to it have been insufficient. He says prison staff have been given inconsistent guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health on when to stay home and when to come work.

“Right now it’s not safe for anybody at the Fort Dodge Correctional Faculty so I’m laying this at the feet of the governor of this state,” said Homan.

Earlier this week the Iowa Department of Corrections announced that on Monday, 71-year-old Ray Vanlengen died of likely COVID-19 complications, after contracting it while serving time at FDCF.

According to a IDOC statement, Vanlengen was pronounced dead the day after he was transferred to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Incarcerated Iowans and their families are worried more will die.

“For me, you know…ultimately I’m afraid it could be a death sentence,” said the woman in Central Iowa. “Like it’s not just a 35 year sentence, it’s a death sentence.”

She, and family members of other people at FDCF, say they’ve gotten almost no communication from prison staff and instead share stories through Facebook support groups.

Family members question prison's outbreak plan

Aundrea Noblet, whose boyfriend is incarcerated at FDCF, emailed Warden Robert Johnson directly back in April, and again this month, asking for specific details on the prison’s outbreak plan.

Whatever steps were in place, she says it wasn’t enough.

Long periods of controlled movement are hard on both inmates and staff, and it's our hope that as soon as we believe we've contained the spread of the virus, we can restore the facility to a more normal movement status. - Cord Overton, Iowa Department of Corrections

“I feel like they should have had these guidelines in place. Like, okay if it does hit, whose responsibility is it to get the guys water? To get the guys food? To get laundry done?” she asked.

Beyond ensuring basic needs are met, Noblet wishes that state leaders had done more to drastically reduce the prison population before the virus took hold, as had been recommended by advocates in the state.

Amid the outbreak, Savannah Moore, Noelting-Petra’s girlfriend, says she’s seen posts on social media dismissing the risk the virus poses to incarcerated people, because of the crimes they have committed.

“That hits you really hard because that’s somebody that you know and you love,” she said. “They just diminish them as human beings.”

IDOC declined interview requests for this story, but said in a written statement all inmates are getting enough food and water, that staff are doing their best, and that the lockdown is necessary to try to control the virus.

“Long periods of controlled movement are hard on both inmates and staff, and it's our hope that as soon as we believe we've contained the spread of the virus, we can restore the facility to a more normal movement status. Our first priority is protecting the lives of our inmates and staff,” IDOC spokesperson Cord Overton’s statement reads in part.

Overton added that widespread testing is being conducted in conjunction with public health officials at the county and state level.

The Webster County Public Health Department declined to comment on the situation at the Fort Dodge prison and instead directed IPR to IDOC.

As the outbreak continues to spread, family members on the outside say the hardest is part is the not knowing. They keep waiting for a call, for an email, for some kind of update.

Their incarcerated loved ones have said, if they don’t hear back from them, assume they’ve tested positive and have been put in isolation.

“[T]here needs to be awareness to the reality of what is happening in here,” Noelting-Petra wrote in an o-mail message dated July 2 at 3:08 p.m. “[I]f for some reason you do not hear from me after tomorrow, it will be because [I] am being punished for being vulnerable to the disease they let in.”