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Advocates Push For Compassionate Release Of Incarcerated Iowans With Underlying Conditions

Corrections health experts have been urging prison administrators to plan for coronavirus.
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Advocates are calling for state leaders to allow compassionate releases of incarcerated Iowans with underlying conditions.

Advocates and family members of incarcerated Iowans are gathering signatures and coordinating an email campaign in the hopes of pressuring Gov. Kim Reynolds and state lawmakers into approving compassionate releases and temporarily waiving mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. The efforts are meant to prevent further infections and deaths among inmates who are most vulnerable to the highly contagious coronavirus.

As of Monday afternoon, three incarcerated Iowans had died of COVID-19. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, all of them suffered from preexisting conditions, which may have made them more vulnerable to the disease.

Savannah Moore’s boyfriend is incarcerated at theprison in Fort Dodge, where nearly one third of the prison population has tested positive after the coronavirus spread quickly through the facility. Moore says her boyfriend is scared for those who are elderly or have underlying conditions.

“He has really good friends in there that he's made that are in a high risk category, 60 years old, 70 years old. These are the people that he sees and knows. His neighbors, his friends, people that he leans to for support every single day,” Moore said. “And he's worried about them, too.”

Moore is spearheading the email campaign along with Aundrea Noblet, whose boyfriend is also incarcerated at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

“We are asking for the government officials to use their powers to do what they can to help reduce the prison population to help save lives and reduce the spread of COVID-19. We know it is not an easy feat but it is necessary and achievable during the COVID-19 pandemic,” their statement reads, in part.

According to a 2018 analysis by the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Iowa is the only state to not have policies granting compassionate release.

“Compassionate release allows prisoners facing imminent death, advancing age, or debilitating medical conditions to secure early release when those developments diminish the need for or morality of continued imprisonment,” the FAMM report explains.

Compassionate release is one of the legal mechanisms advocates, attorneys and families have been relying on to request early releases during the pandemic, though it’s proven difficult for some to achieve even in states where the practice is more established.

In a statement to IPR, Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton touted the department’s efforts to reduce the prison population in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through a combination of efforts between the DOC, the Board of Parole, the Community Based Corrections Districts, and the Jails across Iowa, the current prison population is the lowest it has been since the year 2000,” Overton said. “The vast majority of those that left prison did so under parole or work release supervision, as is typical for those transitioning from prison back to the community.”

Despite those efforts, the state’s prison system remains overcrowded, with facilities operating overcapacity by 8percent on average, as of Monday.

One Iowa correctional officer told IPR that broader sentencing reform is still needed in the state to prevent more Iowans from winding up in prison in the first place. IPR is withholding his name because he was not authorized to speak publicly and is concerned he could lose his job.

Barring structural changes, he says IDOC should do more to proactively reduce the incarcerated population, particularly by focusing on those with health concerns, and those serving time on minor violations.

“Generally the ones that you’re hearing about pushing for release: people that are in poor health, a little bit older, probably not going to be a danger to much of anybody. People that are in for minor parole violations, like failing to check in with your [parole officer] for a week, stuff like that,” said the correctional officer, who works at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.

Short of policy changes, Moore is hoping to push against the sentiments that she’s seen on social media dismissing COVID-19 infections and deaths of incarcerated Iowans, simply because they have criminal records.

“I see people that will post on Facebook or social media with their very open opinions about, ‘who cares if the virus gets into a prison? Let them all burn, or let them die’,” Moore said, her voice full of emotion. “It shows no empathy. It’s really disheartening to see.”

“It hurts your heart,” she added. “And it lets you know where people lie.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter