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Coalition Calls For Urgent Action To Slow Spread Of Coronavirus In Iowa Jails And Prisons

The July 8 hunger strike wasn't the first California's Pelican Bay State Prison has seen. Inmates in the prison's isolation unit also protested their conditions in 2011.
Rich Pedroncelli
A coalition of racial justice organizations and community advocates are calling on state leaders to take urgent action to control the spread of the coronavirus within Iowa's jails and prisons.

A coalition of racial justice organizations and community advocates are calling on Iowa officials to take aggressive and proactive steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus within the state’s jails and prisons. The groups are sending a letter to state officials including Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Parole, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, calling for urgent action in the often overcrowded facilities, where staff have struggled to control explosive outbreaks.

The letter lists a series of “demands” that the coalition says have been communicated to them by people incarcerated in Iowa correctional facilities, ranging from implementing stricter quarantine protocols, to more evenly enforcing preexisting policies such as mask rules for staff.

Activists say the letter draws on the accounts of incarcerated individuals across nine correctional facilities who have been in contact with the advocates before and during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 cases must be treated promptly and effectively. End the practice of locking people in solitary or locking down entire units for 23 hours a day,” the letter reads in part. “Health service response time must be adequate in treating all injuries and illnesses. Prior to the pandemic, it took up to two weeks before a request to be seen was accepted and another one to two weeks for the person to be seen.”

The letter also raises concerns about the general welfare of incarcerated individuals during the pandemic, calling for expanded access to mental health care, nutritious food, telephone privileges and an end to the use of solitary confinement cells as quarantine units.

Additionally, the letter calls for a marked reduction in arrests and a concerted increase in early releases for those who pose little risk to society, those who are medically vulnerable and those up for parole.

Advocates noted that some Iowans’ releases have been delayed because they haven’t been able to complete court-mandated treatment programs within the prisons, programs which haven’t been available during the pandemic.

“Minimize the number of individuals being arrested. Parole boards must release people in order to decrease the prison and jail population enough to allow for social distancing and safety protocols,” said Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, reading off a portion of the letter.

“The most crucial action within leadership’s power is to keep facilities as empty as possible by immediately releasing elderly and parole-eligible populations and by increasing the number of cases screened for release,” said Matè Muhammad, another organizer for Des Moines BLM. “The same is true for people being detained by ICE.”

Christina Velasquez, a volunteer with Iowans for Immigrant Freedom and the Des Moines chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice, says she’s been visiting people detained by ICE for alleged immigration violations during the pandemic. She says many don’t know what COVID testing is being conducted at their facility because they don’t have adequate access to interpreters.

“They can’t really explain what’s in place and how often things are happening because they don’t really know because they haven’t been….they haven’t been given accessible information in a language that they can understand,” Velasquez said.

While the DOC and BOP have taken steps to reduce prison populations during the pandemic, Jade Suganuma of Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America says these efforts have been insufficient, leaving the state’s prisons dangerously overcrowded and even more vulnerable to the highly contagious virus.

“The state’s own website through their own data system says that the majority of prisons in Iowa are currently populated over capacity,” Suganuma said. “Whether or not they already released people, it’s not enough. If we’re still overpopulated, it’s obviously a problem.”

As of Thursday, 15 incarcerated individuals and two corrections staffers had died of COVID, which has infected more than 4,000 people in the state’s prisons.

The letter is cosigned by American Friends Service Committee Iowa, Center for Worker Justice, Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America, Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, Des Moines Mutual Aid, Des Moines Showing Up for Racial Justice, Forward Latino, Great Plains Action Society, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowans for Immigrant Freedom, LULAC and the Prairielands Freedom Fund.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter