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As Deadly Outbreak Continues At Fort Dodge Prison, Family Members Say Some Inmates' Releases Are Delayed

Some drops in prison populations were offset by increases at local jails, especially in rural areas.
David Madison
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Family members of some Iowans incarcerated at the state prison in Fort Dodge say their releases are being delayed because of the deadly coronavirus outbreak there.

Some family members of people incarcerated at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility say their loved ones’ release from the facility is being delayed because of an ongoing coronavirus outbreak that as of Thursday had infected 338 incarcerated individuals and 30 staffers, and killed three.

The outbreak at the prison in Webster County has grown exponentially since the first case was reported on July 1, with nearly a third of the inmates there having now tested positive for COVID-19.

The rapid spread has significantly disrupted daily operations at the facility, including some inmates’ abilities to complete mandatory treatment programs and to be released on time once their sentence is served, according to family members.

One inmate was exposed to the coronavirus, after his release was delayed

Ann Courtney’s boyfriend was eligible to be released on parole from FDCF as of July 15 and was supposed to be transferred to a county jail to deal with a previous charge. IPR is using her middle names and withholding his name, because they both fear retaliation by prison staff.

“I've never seen anyone want to go to a jail so bad,” Ann Courtney. said. “He's like, ‘just take me to the jail where I'm supposed to be.’ They just don't do it.”

More than two weeks after he was eligible to be transferred out, Ann Courtney’s boyfriend is still at FDCF. In those intervening days, she says he’s missed a court date, and he was exposed to the coronavirus after his cellmate tested positive.

"The longer he sits there, the more potential he's going to have to catch this. There's no need for him to be there.”
- Ann Courtney, whose boyfriend is being held at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility

As of July 24, he had tested negative three times, but Ann Courtney is concerned he will contract the virus, because he was held past his release date.

“I pointed that out to the warden as well. I was like, ‘the longer he sits there, the more potential he's going to have to catch this’,” Ann Courtney said. “There's no need for him to be there.”

Multiple family members of people incarcerated at FDCF have told IPR that inmates and their emergency contacts are not being consistently notified of their test results, that staff aren’t responding to their questions, and that staff are not adequately tracking who’s positive and who’s negative and isolating them accordingly.

Ann Courtney says FDCF Warden Robert Johnson told her he’s hesitant to release inmates because of the potential risk of exacerbating community spread (meanwhile, family members and advocates blame prison staff for bringing the virus into the facility).

“We have just figured out a process for beginning to release offenders on Monday (yesterday) so the first steps are being taken but it will take time and communication with community staff to get people out. I hope you understand that we want to get offenders released, but at the same time, it can’t be to the point at putting others at risk,” Johnson wrote on July 21, according to an email shared with IPR.

Mandatory treatment programs also delayed

Lyndsey Kalvig says her husband Clay’s case is also being delayed because of the outbreak. He’s serving time at FDCF on a parole violation after struggling with drug addiction, according to Kalvig.

Like Ann Courtney, Kalvig says an FDCF administrator told her that some releases are being delayed, because receiving institutions such as county jails or halfway houses aren’t accepting the transfers.

“Well, if they’re going to another facility, they’re not being released at this time,” Kalvig said Deputy Warden Donald Harris told her over the phone. “And he said, ‘other facilities have asked us not to transfer’.”

"He actually hasn't even started treatment yet because of the fact that they're not offering it."
- Lyndsey Kalvig, whose husband is being held at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility

Lieutenant Chad Cribb, president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association, says he’s not aware of county jails not accepting transfers due to coronavirus concerns, but granted that the size of local facilities could be a factor.

“I have not heard anything like this,” Cribb said. “It could be an isolated case depending on the county and size or their jail.”

Kalvig says her husband faces another barrier too: she says he has a parole board hearing scheduled next month, but staff won’t recommend his release because he hasn’t completed a mandatory drug treatment program. That, Kalvig says, is because FDCF has halted the program during the outbreak.

“He actually hasn't even started treatment yet because of the fact that they're not offering it,” Kalvig said.

Even so, she says her husband would be better off accessing treatment by qualified, certified professionals outside of the prison system.

“I think that outpatient treatment will be the best option for him. Because my husband has been in and out of prison his whole life,” Kalvig said. “Inpatient treatment in the prison is not doing anything for him. He's done it many, many times before.”

IDOC says releases are underway

Warden Johnson did not respond to questions about the current release policies at FDCF, but Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton said Iowans are still being released from the facility, after being held in an “exit quarantine process” and testing negative for COVID-19.

“The process for transition at prisons with active cases of COVID-19, like at FDCF, is more rigorous than at prisons not currently dealing with positive cases, but even at FDCF, there is still a process in place to safely transition those that are COVID-19 negative, or have already recovered, and 42 individuals have transitioned back to the community in July from this facility, with an additional 16 scheduled to release soon,” Overton’s written statement reads in part.

In regards to treatment programs, Overton said they’re ongoing at facilities not experiencing an outbreak. Programming will resume at FDCF when it’s safe to do so, he said.

Overton did not directly respond to questions about whether IDOC is considering releasing individuals on house arrest and tracking them through the use of ankle monitors, as some family members have suggested.

Most state prisons remain overcrowded

As of Friday, FDCF was one of just two state prisons to be operating under capacity, with other facilities overcrowded by as much as 189 percent. On average, the state’s prisons are overcrowded by 8 percent, according to IDOC statistics.

"The process for transition at prisons with active cases of COVID-19, like at FDCF, is more rigorous than at prisons not currently dealing with positive cases, but even at FDCF, there is still a process in place to safely transition those that are COVID-19 negative, or have already recovered."
- Cord Overton, spokesman, Iowa Department of Corrections

Meanwhile, one correctional officer told IPR he believes that state prisons are holding too many Iowans on sentences that are too harsh, a situation he says is made more stark by the pandemic.

IPR is withholding his name because he’s not authorized to speak publicly and is afraid he’ll lose his job.

“There's a lot of people that probably should be out. There's a lot of people that are coming back in for minor parole violations, even when it's not a pandemic going on,” said the officer, who works at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, also known as Oakdale Prison, where he says incarcerated patients with the worst cases of COVID-19 are housed after being released from the University of Iowa hospital.

In the meantime, family members of incarcerated individuals, especially those with underlying conditions, continue to worry state prisons are unable to protect their loved ones from the virus.

“What happens when he does get it? Is that a lawsuit coming?” Ann Courtney asked of her boyfriend. “You made him susceptible to this virus by holding him there.”

“That's on their hands if he were to get it,” she added.