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Union Leader Calls For A 'Shelter-In-Place' At Iowa Prisons To Curb Deadly COVID-19 Outbreaks

Iowa Department of Corrections/File Photo
The head of the union representing correctional officers in Iowa is calling for a shelter-in-place for the state's prisons due to coronavirus outbreaks.

The leader of the union representing Iowa’s correctional officers is calling for state prisons to “shelter in place” in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has so far infected more than 3,400 incarcerated individuals and staffers.

The announcement comes the week after the Iowa Department of Corrections announced the first publicly-known death of an employee due to COVID-19, a staffer at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. As of Monday, eight incarcerated individuals had died of the disease.

Speaking to reporters Monday, AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said drastic action is needed to prevent more deaths at Iowa prisons. He called for a temporary halt to new admissions and transfers within the facilities, saying DOC isn’t adequately quarantining or testing inmates.

“We need to shut this department down. We need shelter-in-place. Leave all inmates where they’re at. And we need to do this for four weeks, so that we can figure out what’s going on inside the walls of the institutions,” Homan said.

“People’s lives depend on it. Iowa has lost too many people. Too many citizens have died. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this virus are. And I don’t want to see anyone else die."
-Danny Homan, president, AFSCME Council 61

Homan conceded that stopping admissions, as the department has done twice before during the pandemic, could add pressure to county sheriffs and their jails, as more people wait to be transferred.

“If that negatively impacts a county jail, I’m sorry,” Homan said. “I’m not doing this to make their life more miserable. I’m trying to do this to stop COVID-19 inside the institutions of the state of Iowa.”

DOC spokesperson Cord Overton flatly rejected the shelter-in-place proposal, saying it would “shift the burden” to county jails, at a time when they too are trying to keep their population numbers low.

“The reality is that whenever we shut off admissions, their jails start to fill up with inmates awaiting transfer to prison,” Overton said. “Many Iowa jails are not designed to handle large populations of inmates for an extended period of time.”

Lawmakers say DOC was at “bare bones” staffing level before COVID

State Sen. Rich Taylor D-Mount Pleasant, who worked at the Iowa State Penitentiary for 26 years, was also on the call with reporters and echoed the shelter-in-place proposal. He said the department’s efforts were stymied by insufficient funding and “pressure” from state leaders.

“I believe that the director is trying to do the right things. But the pressure from on top, and when I say on top, I mean from the governor’s office, is keeping [Director Beth Skinner] from doing what they really need to do,” Taylor said.

A spokesperson for Gov. Kim Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment.

Taylor and state Rep. Wes Breckenridge D-Newton, who was also on the call, said that DOC has been underfunded and understaffed long before the pandemic. As scores of employees haven’t been able to work after being infected or exposed, the “strain” on the rest of the staff has compounded.

“When you're already working at bare bones numbers, as they have been for years, it makes it much more challenging to fill those spots and those voids when you lose people to contracting COVID,” Breckenridge said.

Homan said the department relies heavily on mandatory overtime, with some officers working shifts upwards of 20 hours straight.

State Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, and Sue McTaggart, a mother of an incarcerated individual, told IPR that inmates have been transferred from one prison to another in order to keep the kitchens operational due to staffing shortages amid the outbreaks.

Expanded access to N95 masks, following death of employee

Homan said that DOC has taken action in the wake of the death of the employee: the department will be supplying N95 masks to more staffers across the state, a measure which Homan said he and his members have been “begging for."

Overton said supply chain issues limited which staffers have been able to get N95s, but that more have become available in the past month.

“Last week, we notified all our staff that we would be expanding the use of N95s to not only those that might have close contact with a positive or presumptive positive inmate, but to anyone working in these types of units as well,” Overton said.

Those who don’t have an N95 have been directed to wear two procedural masks and a face shield.

“When you're already working at bare bones numbers, as they have been for years, it makes it much more challenging to fill those spots and those voids when you lose people to contracting COVID."
-State Rep. Wes Breckenridge D-Newton

But even with expanded access to more effective PPE, Homan questioned the enforcement of department policies requiring incarcerated individuals wear masks. Inmates’ loved ones, for their part, have questioned whether DOC staffers are properly following the same policies.

Homan has also called for widespread testing of not only incarcerated individuals but staff as well. Employees are not required to report their results and are largely not required to be tested at all, according to Overton.

Family members of incarcerated individuals have told IPR they’re terrified that a diagnosis of COVID behind bars could amount to a death sentence, in a state that abolished the death penalty in 1965. Homan echoed this and his fears for employees, saying the death toll has already been too high, taking the lives of 2,208 Iowans as of Monday evening.

“People’s lives depend on it. Iowa has lost too people. Too many citizens have died. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this virus are,” Homan said. “And I don’t want to see anyone else die.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter