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Iowa Democrats Request Federal Investigation Of State Prisons Following Deadly Attack On Staffers

Flags fly at half-staff on March 24, 2021 outside the Anamosa State Penitentiary, one day after state officials say two inmates killed a nurse and a correctional officer while attempting to escape the prison.
Kate Payne
Flags fly at half-staff outside the Anamosa State Penitentiary last month, one day after state officials say two inmates killed a nurse and a correctional officer while attempting to escape the prison.

Iowa Democrats are requesting federal officials conduct an independent investigation into the killings of two Iowa Department of Corrections staffers by two inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary last month, as well as overall safety conditions across the state’s correctional facilities.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-West Des Moines, along with Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls and House Minority Leader Todd Pritchard made the request Tuesday, penning a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Two incarcerated Iowans are accused of bludgeoning to death Nurse Lorena Schulte and Correctional Officer Robert McFarland, using hammers they acquired in a failed attempt to escape the prison. Investigators say another prison employee and a fellow inmate who attempted to render aid to the victims were also injured in the gruesome attack.

“This terrible tragedy should never have happened, and we believe, unfortunately, this incident was completely preventable,” the letter to federal officials reads in part.

The incident has stunned Iowans inside and outside of state prisons and is thought to be the first case of an inmate killing an Iowa correctional staffer in decades.

In their letter, the lawmakers point to issues that predate the March 23 attack at the Anamosa prison, including longstanding concerns that the facilities are critically understaffed and persistently overcrowded, along with more recent revelations that the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued numerous warnings and serious violations to the department last year, proposing nearly $30,000 in fines for violations.

“To date, the Governor and DOC have failed to address gross understaffing, overcapacity facilities, hazardous prison conditions, and other warning signs. These factors ultimately led to the tragic deaths of two Iowans who dedicated their lives trying to keep the public safe,” the letter reads.

According to a citation issued in August of 2020, state investigators identified “serious” violations at the Anamosa prison, finding that employers had failed to provide “adequate and reliable” ways for employees to communicate and call for help during emergencies and noting a number of issues with the prison’s radio system, concerns which applied across the facility.

“These deficiencies slow or prevent adequate response of correctional officers during an emergency or threat of attack,” the citation reads.

State investigators made similar findings at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, noting other malfunctions of the prion’s radio system.

“As of date, neither the DOC nor the Governor have taken corrective action,” the lawmakers wrote. “Instead of heeding warnings and working to improve safety in our correctional facilities, the DOC began denying state inspectors access to facilities for fair and independent safety assessments.”

DOC Director Beth Skinner has pledged to hold those responsible for the attack accountable to the fullest extent of the law. She has also instituted a slate of staffing changes, reassigning wardens across the system, as well as creating a position for a new director of prison security. An internal departmental investigation is underway, being carried out by out of state corrections officials. In addition, Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced an external investigation will be conducted of “all facilities."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter