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'It's Horrific': COVID Tears Through State Prison In Anamosa As Case Numbers Spike Statewide

A COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 28.
Go Nakamura
/
Getty Images
A COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 28.

The coronavirus is tearing through Iowa’s prisons, infecting more than 3,400 incarcerated individuals and staff and killing 9: eight inmates and one employee. The Anamosa State Penitentiary is one of the hardest-hit institutions, where more than three-quarters of the incarcerated population have contracted COVID-19.

At the state prison in Anamosa, the thing that family members and advocates have been warning of for months has happened: the prison has become a sprawling, stone petri dish for the coronavirus.

As of Friday, more than 77% of the people incarcerated there had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a state tally. Many of them are considered recovered, but three have died. Additionally, 124 staff members there have also reported contracting the disease.

“He could die there. Something has to be done for these guys. I mean, like I can't…I don't sleep. I mean, it's…it's horrific,” said a woman whose fiancé is incarcerated at Anamosa.

IPR is withholding both their names because she says he’s faced retaliation when she’s spoken out in the past. Her fiancé has tested positive for COVID and she’s terrified it could amount to a death sentence.

When she spoke with IPR she hadn’t heard from him in a few days.

"He could die there. Something has to be done for these guys. I mean, like I can't…I don't sleep. I mean, it's…it's horrific."
-a woman whose fiancé is incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary

“You can't see them, you know? You can't see…to see their color or their eyes or their breathing or anything. Just to see their face to give you a sense, you know? A little bit of ease,” she said. “It's just not there.”

She says she pictures him in his cell, listening to the coughing and the silence.

“I couldn’t imagine laying there at night, doing time alone in this tiny cell, dark and cold,” she said. “And people are dying around you. Essentially that's what it is. They may not be dead now. But some of them, they are dying. That's the reality. They're sick. And there's nothing that they can do.”

Incarcerated Iowans may face increased risk of severe disease

Corrections department officials have said they are doing welfare checks multiple times a day and that people who have tested positive are being seen by medical staff and their needs are being met.

“Our staff do rounds, continuous rounds,” Anamosa Warden Jeremy Larson said during a recent DOC video update. “We’ve told them over and over: check on everybody. Make sure that they’re doing ok. Ask them how they’re doing. And if they’re not? Call medical.”

Larson said it’s only been a “small group” at Anamosa who have developed “more severe” symptoms from the disease. But he said all individuals are being monitored.

“No one’s getting overlooked,” he added. “We are meeting their needs.”

Still, some people behind bars are getting gravely ill with the disease that, as of Friday, had infected more than 203,000 Iowans and killed 2,127 people statewide.

Many incarcerated individuals may be at an increased risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID. A national survey has shown they’re more likely than the general public to have chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma and many don’t get needed medical care while behind bars.

The risks associated with underlying conditions are a concern for Tracy Pippins, whose husband is incarcerated at Anamosa. She says that when he tested positive about three weeks ago, she was notified before he was.

“[I] told him you know, to be strong and hang on and that, you know, that a lot of people did well and recovered, you know? I was trying to ease his mind a little bit,” Pippins said. “And he hadn’t been told yet!”

Pippins’ husband is now considered recovered and has told her he’s feeling back to normal.

But she says the scale of infections has upended prison operations, with incarcerated individuals in lockdown 23 hours a day, at times. So many people tested positive, Pippins said it was easier for staff at Anamosa to isolate those who were negative.

“The positive cases were coming on so fast and furious at that point, that what they were doing was the opposite. They were moving people out who were negative,” she said.

"They’re really at the mercy of those who work there. It’s kind of sobering to think that just an evening or a weekend of carelessness could bring that inside and affect so many people so quickly."
-Tracy Pippins, wife of an incarcerated individual

Pippins and others who spoke with IPR worry that DOC staff aren’t taking sufficient precautions to protect against the virus. According to DOC spokesperson Cord Overton, for months department policy has required inmates to wear masks when moving around the prison. Staff are required to wear “procedural masks and face shields” while on the job as well.

But loved ones have raised concerns about the enforcement of those rules and questioned how seriously staff are following public health guidelines when they’re off the job, asking if seemingly insignificant interactions on the outside were causing catastrophic repercussions on the inside.

“They’re really at the mercy of those who work there,” Pippins said. “It’s kind of sobering to think that just an evening or a weekend of carelessness could bring that inside and affect so many people so quickly.”

Coronavirus upends prison operations

As the virus has moved through the prisons, it’s caused critical staffing shortages, according to Sue McTaggart. Her son was transferred from Anamosa to the prison in Mount Pleasant earlier this summer, she says in order to keep the kitchens running.

At the peak, she said her son was working 12 hours a day, six days a week making 50-some cents an hour, which she says is enhanced pay.

“They are completely at the mercy of prison labor in order to feed inmates. And to clothe them, because they also use those inmates to work the laundry,” McTaggart said. “They wouldn’t be able to function without prison labor.”

Earlier this month, she says two dozen more men were transferred from Mount Pleasant back to Anamosa for the same reason: to keep the kitchens running during the outbreak.

In an interview with IPR, state Rep. Lindsay James D-Dubuque said that Overton confirmed this to her: that inmates were transferred from Mount Pleasant to Anamosa in order to keep the kitchen appropriately staffed.

But Overton would not confirm this to IPR, citing security concerns. He also directed IPR to public statements from prison wardens saying they’re doing the best they can to control the virus.

"If you can’t get people to care about grandmothers in nursing homes, you're certainly not going to get them to care about inmates. And that's where we are."
-Sue McTaggart, mother of an incarcerated individual

Nonetheless, COVID has taken hold in Iowa’s prisons to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in the country. According to an analysis by the Marshall Project, Iowa ranks fourth in the nation for the highest rate of COVID infections among its prisoners.

And the virus can’t be locked in: as of Thursday, Jones County, home of Anamosa, had the highest rate of new cases in the state, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

By Friday morning, that metric was surpassed by the rate of new cases in Calhoun County, home of the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City, where 90 percent of incarcerated individuals have tested positive for COVID, according to an IPR analysis of state data. The majority are considered recovered, according to the department.

For McTaggart, it’s infuriating to watch COVID tear through one facility after another, while hearing of people being denied parole during the pandemic, even as the state’s prisons remain seven percent over capacity.

“If you can’t get people to care about grandmothers in nursing homes, you're certainly not going to get them to care about inmates,” McTaggart said. “And that's where we are.”

She wants Iowans to recognize that COVID-19 was not part of her son’s sentence or anyone else’s. And what’s happening behind bars isn’t staying there.