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Iowa Prison Officials Hire Security Chief, Expect More Changes Following Deadly Attack

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
The killings of two staffers at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, allegedly by two inmates who used prison-issued tools as weapons, has shaken the department. Iowa prisons rely heavily on inmate labor to maintain operational, but a slate of changes are expected in the coming weeks and months.

The Iowa Department of Corrections has hired a new security operations director, in the wake of the killings of two prison staffers, allegedly by two inmates. Multiple investigations are underway into the incident at the Anamosa State Penitentiary on March 23 and state officials have said a slate of policy and operational changes may follow.

DOC Director Beth Skinner announced Friday that a Wisconsin prison official will be the department’s new security operations director, a position created in the wake of the killings of Officer Robert McFarland and Nurse Lorena Schulte.

Investigators believe inmates Thomas Woodard and Michael Dutcher used prison-issued hammers to kill the staffers during an unsuccessful escape attempt. The men go on trial in Jones County June 22.

Skinner told the state Board of Corrections Friday that Brian Foster currently serves as the Security Chief for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, doing work she hopes he will replicate in Iowa.

“This position will directly report to me and his sole focus will be improving the security of our prisons. All 9 institutions,” Skinner said. “This individual will be on the road all the time, working with administration, security directors.”

Foster’s first day on the job with be May 24.

Equipment upgrades to come, more operational changes may follow

While Foster may make his own security recommendations, Skinner says she’s already made commitments for some equipment upgrades and operational updates, with more expected to follow.

“Additional fixed cameras, body worn cameras, IT-related security measures, equipment upgrades and replacements,” she said, running down a list. “Additional tool control measures, both for work crews and workshops. Additional CERT emergency response teams.”

In the first board meeting since the deadly attack on March 23, Skinner acknowledged that the killings have shaken the department and she again gave her condolences to the friends, family and coworkers of McFarland and Schulte.

Multiple investigations into the incident are ongoing, with separate inquests being conducted by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the DOC. The department has also invited prison officials from Minnesota and South Dakota to conduct an outside review of the attack.

The DOC also recently posted an RFP for an external system-wide review of operations. Skinner says the RFP has since been closed and scoring of proposals is underway.

She told board members she’s also seeking out feedback from staff and administrators directly, visiting each facility in-person since the attack.

“I will be traveling back to each of these prisons every three months to capture the progress,” Skinner said. “I promised these staff that we are hearing them, the information will be shared to their wardens and that I will be back to see how things are going.”

DOC spokesperson Cord Overton did not respond to a question on whether the department would release the findings of its investigations to the public.

Changes being made to inmate mail policies

The Department of Corrections is moving forward with a plan to change how inmate mail is handled, in an attempt to slow the stream of illicit drugs coming into the facilities. Officials say they’ve seen a significant increase in “serious contraband” incidents in recent years.

Prison officials say it’s nearly impossible to detect synthetic drugs that they say are hidden in books or soaked into sheets of mail that are sent to the facilities. Prisons across the country are struggling to get a handle on the drug, called K2, which has killed inmates in other prisons.

Now the department has begun allowing wardens to scan mail entering the facility and print out copies for inmates. The change has already been implemented at the prisons in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant; other facilities may follow as needed.

Prison officials announced last week an investigation at Clarinda identified some 60 inmates who were involved in possessing, using or introducing the synthetic drugs into the prison. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described K2 as “dangerous and unpredictable."

Deputy Director of Institutions Bill Sperfslage says the change is needed to protect both inmates and staff.

“I hate to say it's out of control,” Sperfslage said, “but really this is…it is so easy to get this stuff into the institution and it is so hard for us to detect. It's…very close to impossible to detect, quite frankly. So we have to do this to minimize risk.”

Last month the department also changed its book policy, requiring inmates to buy books only from prison-approved vendors, a change which outraged some loved ones and civil rights advocates.

More than half of inmates at least partially vaccinated

Department officials said they’ve made progress on their voluntary push to vaccinate employees and inmates, despite nursing staff giving large overdoses of the Pfizer vaccine to 77 inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison last month.

Skinner said prison officials reached out to the CDC and Pfizer for guidance and said the affected inmates have been monitored for weeks for any potential side effects. She also said additional measures have been taken to add more oversight to dosing protocols.

As of Friday, 1,354 inmates had been fully vaccinated and 2,707 were partially vaccinated, amounting to roughly 52 percent of the 7,675 people currently incarcerated in Iowa prisons. Additionally, 1,270 staff out of 2,413 have been fully vaccinated.

“If people change their mind, because there's a lot of people that are on the fence, we will surely offer that vaccination to them if they change their mind,” Skinner said. “We're not making it mandatory, but I think that…we continue to see more and more people decide, ‘yeah I do want to take the vaccinations’.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter