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Unsafe Conditions And Understaffing Contributed To Staffers' Killings, Democratic Lawmakers Say Following Tour Of Anamosa Prison

Iowa Democratic lawmakers toured the Anamosa State Penitentiary Friday, one month after two inmates allegedly killed two prison staffers there in the first deadly assault of its kind in decades.

Iowa Democratic lawmakers who toured the Anamosa State Penitentiary Friday say conditions at the prison must improve, after two incarcerated individuals allegedly killed two staffers there last month. The elected officials described the facility as unsafe, overcrowded and understaffed, and say those conditions and a lack of state funding contributed to the deaths of Correctional Officer Robert McFarland and Nurse Lorena Schulte.

Touring the facility in person Friday, state lawmakers saw for themselves the conditions at the sprawling stone fortress, which employees and union representatives say has been critically understaffed for years.

The group of lawmakers talked privately with employees, who spoke of hundreds of hours of overtime and faulty communications equipment. They met with the interim warden and toured cell blocks where they say inmates vastly outnumbered the staff.

Inmates 'vastly outnumber' staff at Anamosa prison

“Over and over and over we were shown areas of the prison where you have a huge number of inmates just vastly outnumbering the number of staff who were there in the individual areas,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, told reporters at a press conference outside the prison. “We heard multiple times that, ‘if we don’t have enough staff we can’t follow the policies that keep this facility safe’.”

On March 23, two inmates allegedly beat McFarland and Schulte to death with prison-issued hammers during a failed attempt to escape the facility. Investigators say the inmates also seriously injured a third employee and another inmate who had tried to help the victims.

Last year, the Iowa Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the Department of Corrections tens of thousands of dollars for failing to provide adequate communications systems for staff to communicate during emergencies, citing the prison in Anamosa as well as the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.

“These deficiencies slow or prevent adequate response of correctional officers during an emergency or threat of attack,” read a citation issued in August of 2020 in reference to the Anamosa prison.

The Democratic lawmakers say state leaders have failed to adequately respond to the violations identified by the Iowa OSHA investigators. They also blame Republican legislators for not restoring funding for the Department of Corrections to what it was before the Great Recession, resulting in the DOC’s workforce shrinking by hundreds of positions over the years. Democrats say that these factors, combined with a law passed in 2017 that drastically limited public employees’ collective bargaining abilities, contributed to the deaths of Schulte and McFarland.

“Corrections officers and the people who make this penitentiary work, they are your family. They are your friends. They are your neighbors. And they are public safety workers. They are keeping this state safe,” Wahls said. “And the decision to underfund this system has had deadly consequences in the state of Iowa.”

Democrats call for funding increase to hire hundreds of more prison staffers

The Democrats used the opportunity Friday to again make their pitch to significantly increase state funding for the DOC in the final days of this year’s legislative session, saying $34 million should be “the floor, not the ceiling” in order to fill hundreds of currently vacant positions and restore hundreds more that have been cut over the past decade.

Republican legislative leaders have agreed that additional funding is needed to support the department, but remain divided on exactly how much is warranted.

On Thursday, Speaker of the House Pat Grassley told reporters that Republican leaders are watching the numerous internal and external investigations currently being conducted into the attack at Anamosa and said the majority party had proposed funding increases even before the incident.

“Before [the attack] even happened, we had significant investment in public safety, in the Department of Corrections, a 10 year high for both” Grassley said. “And so I think that we have already displayed that we have a willingness to take action and making sure we’re providing the services and the level of funding that would be needed.”

But Democrats continue to worry the Republican majority is not willing to allocate the level of funding they say is needed to reverse a decade of cuts. Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, is the ranking member on the Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I am beside myself when I go into a cell block that has 300 offenders in it and two prison guards. I am beside myself with that,” Anderson said. “That has to change. We have to have more staff.”

Sentencing reform not part of Democrats' pitch to combat overcrowding

Not part of the Democrats’ pitch Friday to combat overcrowding at the prison are steps pushed by advocates to reform sentencing laws and expand parole and alternative release programs, steps which activists consider a moral imperative that would reduce recidivism and the overall prison population.

Iowans, including retired correctional officers, religious leaders, service providers, loved ones of inmates and crime victims, have called for a shift away from the state’s crime and punishment approach that contributed to a boom in the incarcerated population beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Advocates have called for sentencing reform not only for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, but for some violent crimes as well, with abill proposed this session that would’ve created a pathway for release for Iowans sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic drawing more attention to compassionate release policies granting early release for the elderly and other medically at-risk inmates, according to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Iowa remains the only state in the country without a compassionate release law.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter