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Activists Call On State Leaders To Improve Iowa Prison Conditions

A federal court has ordered that the state of Idaho pay for gender confirmation surgery for Adree Edmo, a transgender inmate incarcerated at the Idaho State Correctional Institution (above).
Heath Druzin/Boise State Public Radio
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Activists are calling on state leaders to lift restrictions in Iowa prisons, which they say are wearing on inmates who have spent long stretches of the past year on lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis.

Activists in Des Moines are calling on state leaders to improve conditions in Iowa’s prisons, where more than 4,800 incarcerated individuals and 700 staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus and where extended lockdowns have significantly impacted the mental health of inmates. The organizers say they’ve been in contact with inmates and are sharing their concerns.

Members of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (DSM BLM) and Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America have been calling attention to the welfare of inmates for months, corresponding with inmates and releasing statements that the activists say reflect the demands of incarcerated individuals.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, members of the groups say that some conditions have worsened in the wake of a deadly attack on two prison staffers allegedly by two inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in March.

Multiple state agencies are investigating the attack, which investigators say was carried out by two inmate maintenance workers who used prison-issued hammers as weapons.

In the wake of the killings, the Department of Corrections put a freeze on inmate work assignments and severely restricted movement at Anamosa and other facilities.

Jade Suganuma of Central Iowa DSA says strict lockdowns and a loss of privileges are wearing on the inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s like, we thought we were gonna…we saw a light, where it’s like, ‘oh yeah we’re coming around giving vaccines, we’re going to get to go back to how it was, we’re going to get to see our friends again’. And suddenly it’s just back on full lockdown mode,” he said.

Other advocates have separately raised concerns about restricted movement as well, noting that many inmates have been subject to near-round the clock lockdowns throughout the past year as the DOC has struggled to slow the spread of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Loved ones say the lockdowns are incredibly isolating, allowing inmates just an hour a day to exercise, shower, check their email or call home, and deposit funds in their accounts in order to send mail or make a call.

At a separate meeting of the Iowa Justice Action Network earlier this week, advocate Sue Hutchins read a message she said she received from a lifer at Anamosa detailing the lockdown.

“For six weeks, we have had 23 hour lockdown, only allowed to leave our cells to shower or call home. I haven't seen my mom in two months. Haven't been able to hug her in over a year because of COVID,” Hutchins read.

DSM BLM and Central Iowa DSA are calling for a slate of changes to improve conditions at the facilities, including ending lockdowns, allowing visitors to return to the prisons, and rolling back a policy that bans loved ones and third parties from mailing books to inmates, a change that was prompted due to concerns about contraband being smuggled in.

The activists are also urging state leaders to address longstanding concerns of overcrowding and understaffing at the prisons by proactively releasing more inmates from DOC custody, by prioritizing the elderly or medically vulnerable or opting for alternative modes of supervision.

DSM BLM organizer Matè Muhammad called out Iowa Democrats for not doing more to pressure state officials to release more inmates as a way to address health and safety concerns. In the wake of the killings, state Democratic leaders have called for a federal investigation of the attack and for a significant increase in the DOC’s budget in order to hire more corrections staff and buy additional safety equipment.

Muhammad argued that increasing staffing alone is the wrong approach.

“Now we see the Democrats actually moving backwards on this crisis, trying to move right,” Muhammad said. “We need decarceration. More prison guards is not an answer to a failed system. You cannot…there’s not any amount of guards that you can put in that their backs are going to be able to hold up a system that is just crumbling.”

Spokespeople for Iowa House and Senate Democrats did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.