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In-person Visits To Iowa Prisons Slated To Restart In July, But Only For Vaccinated Inmates

Inmates at California's Chino State Prison exercise in the prison yard in 2010. A proposition that was passed in the state last year reclassified certain crimes, releasing thousands of inmates earlier than had been anticipated.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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Inmates at California's Chino State Prison exercise in the prison yard in 2010.

Incarcerated Iowans who have gone more than a year without seeing their loved ones in-person can expect to have visitors again starting next month; Iowa prison officials say the facilities are on track to resume visitations in early July, but only for inmates who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

While much of the rest of Iowa moves towards a post-pandemic kind of normal, Iowans serving time in the state’s prisons have had to wait.

Incarcerated individuals haven’t been able to see their loved ones face to face for more than a year, after the state Department of Corrections shut down all visitations beginning on March 14, 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis.

For some Iowans on both sides of the bars, the forced separation has been excruciatingly difficult. While ending visits was meant as a key way to slow the spread of the deadly virus within the prisons, the change left spouses, parents and siblings wracked with worry over the physical and mental health of their loved ones.

Last November, the fiancé of a man incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary told IPR she could barely sleep after he contracted COVID behind bars and she wasn’t able to see him to monitor his health.

“You can't see them, you know? You can't see…to see their color or their eyes or their breathing or anything. Just to see their face to give you a sense, you know? A little bit of ease,” she said. “It's just not there.”

IPR withheld both their names because she says he’s faced retaliation when she’s spoken out in the past.

Board of Corrections Meeting

COVID has wreaked havoc in Iowa prisons; as of Monday, department statistics show that more than 4,800 inmates and more than 700 staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus. Nineteen inmates and two staff members had died.

Over the past year, family members and friends have had to make do with video calls with inmates, which the DOC has provided free of charge. But loved ones say the calls have often been rescheduled or cancelled with little notice, due to security concerns or further COVID outbreaks that forced inmates to remain locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.

Those who can afford to do so have also maintained contact through letters and emails, which loved ones say are often censored and don’t always make it to the recipient.

Roughly 59 percent of Iowa inmates are fully vaccinated

Now after more than a year, the DOC is on track to resume visits, but only for inmates who are fully vaccinated. Those who aren’t vaccinated will continue to have access to video visits.

Staff and visitors themselves will not be required to be vaccinated.

“All inmates that receive visitors will be required to have been vaccinated. Otherwise they'll have to receive their visits via the video system that we will keep in place,” DOC spokesperson Cord Overton said at a meeting of the Board of Corrections on Friday. “Again, those video visits are free of charge for the inmates right now.”

As of Friday, approximately 62 percent of all inmates have had at least one shot and about 59 percent are fully protected, according to the DOC. Meanwhile roughly 57 percent of staffers are partially vaccinated and 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

An IPR analysis of DOC statistics shows that vaccination rates among inmates and staff varies considerably from institution to institution; roughly 36 percent of inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison are fully vaccinated compared to approximately 77 percent of inmates at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

Meanwhile just 25 percent of staffers at the Newton Correctional Facility have been fully vaccinated, compared to 79 percent at ICIW.

Overton says he expects to see vaccination rates among inmates continue to increase as visitations resume.

“Once the word is kind of spread around the prisons about the visiting restriction that you need to be vaccinated in order to have visitors at this time, that I would expect to see additional inmates that do decide to get vaccinated, if they’ve kind of been on the fence about that,” Overton said.

The department’s vaccination drive has had its issues: in April, health staff gave 77 inmates at ISP overdoses of the Pfizer vaccine, though none became sick enough to need outside care.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter