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DOC Delays New Intakes As Coronavirus Continues To Spread In State Prisons

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To try to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Iowa prisons, IDOC is asking county sheriffs to continue holding some 200 Iowans who would otherwise start their sentence in prison.

The Iowa Department of Corrections is drastically limiting how many new incarcerated individuals are entering the prison system, due to the continued spread of the new coronavirus within some prison facilities. IDOC is urging county sheriffs to continue holding Iowans who would otherwise start their prison sentence. In the meantime, that’s leading to a backup in some local jails.

For more than three weeks, the IDOC has slowed new intakes into the prison system to a trickle, with the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies. On April 18, IDOC Director Beth Skinner asked county sheriff’s offices to stop transferring individuals who were ready to start their sentence in the state’s prisons.

“We are starting to see more spread and have serious concerns regarding introducing inmates from counties into a COVID hotspot.  Please know you can reach out to us on a case by case basis or if you are having issues with capacity or difficult individuals and we will evaluate each situation,” Skinner wrote in an email to county sheriff’s offices on May 6.

Since her request to pause admissions, only 12 new intakes have been transferred to the state, according to the department. IDOC estimates that some 200 individuals are being held in county jails as they wait to start their sentence in prison.

It’s part of an effort to try to insulate state facilities from the highly contagious virus, which has infected at least 20,000 incarcerated individuals in prisons across the country, according to The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization covering criminal justice.

We are starting to see more spread and have serious concerns regarding introducing inmates from counties into a COVID hotspot. - IDOC Dir. Beth Skinner

As of Tuesday, there were 34 documented cases of the virus among incarcerated individuals and IDOC staff across four facilities.

The largest outbreak so far is at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, with 29 cases. The facility, often called Oakdale Prison, serves as the intake center for men entering the state prison population.

The Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, where female inmates are processed and housed, has had two confirmed cases among staff.

Advocates warn that the actual scope of the coronavirus may be going largely undetected in correctional facilities due to a lack of testing. IDOC has not opted to conduct aggressive and widespread testing across facilities, as other states have done, and testing in Iowa prisons remains unevenly distributed.

While 324 incarcerated individuals have been tested at IMCC, department records show that only one incarcerated individual has been tested at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and no testing has been conducted at North Central Correctional Facility.

As of this week, IDOC plans to resume the intake process for women ready to start their sentences, but the department plans to delay any new intakes for men until at least May 18, in the hopes that by that time, incarcerated individuals who have contracted the virus will be recovered.

Admissions are expected to be staggered, with smaller counties with less capacity getting priority, and transfers delayed from jails with a positive COVID-19 case.

"We want to be thoughtful on who, where, and when in accepting the admits,” Skinner said in an email to county officials. “This is not just to benefit corrections but to keep all Iowans safe and healthy.”

In a jail that's old like ours and social distancing being a problem to begin with, every little bit of square footage helps when it comes to maintaining social distancing. - Det. Sgt. Brad Kunkel, Johnson County Sheriff's Office

In the meantime, Iowans are waiting to be transferred from county jails. Five of those individuals are being held in the Johnson County Jail, according to Det. Sgt. Brad Kunkel. The facility typically limits its occupancy to around 70 individuals, and Kunkel says having to detain extra people is not ideal.

“In a jail that’s old like ours and social distancing being a problem to begin with, every little bit of square footage helps when it comes to maintaining social distancing,” Kunkel said. “We’re now at the mercy of IMCC to see when they’re ready to take intakes again.”

IDOC did work with the state’s local law enforcement officers to implement the change, says Lt. Chad Cribb of the Scott County Sheriff’s Office. Cribb says the situation is “manageable”, but says it is adding pressure to some smaller jails and can be stressful for Iowans who are ready to get on with their sentences.

“That also could potentially create some issues, people that are inmates that know they’re supposed to be going to the state and they’re not,” Cribb said, who also serves as the president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association. “[It can] make them a little restless.”

IDOC says Iowans affected by the policy will get credit for their time spent in county jails, and sheriff’s offices will be reimbursed for the costs of holding them.

The ACLU of Iowa noted their support for the department’s efforts to insulate incarcerated Iowans from the virus, who may suffer from medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes that can make them more vulnerable to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

But the organization is urging IDOC to do more to release Iowans from the prison system, which as of Tuesday remains 13 perecnt over capacity.

"Even with the DOC’s efforts to reduce overcrowding, the state prison system remains dangerously overcrowded,” a written statement from ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer reads in part. “It's critical that the DOC take additional steps to significantly reduce the prison population in order to save lives in light of the COVID-19 threat.”

While IDOC plans to resume the intake process for at least some men on May 18, this timeline has already been extended once. The department initially hoped to resume the intake process for men on May 11.

Due to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus crisis, Kunkel says he wouldn’t be surprised if the date is pushed back again.

“We’ll see,” he said. “One thing we’ve all learned throughout the pandemic is that everything is subject to change.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter