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Report finds racial disparities in Iowa prisons continue to rank among the highest in the nation

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections over poor conditions within men's prisons.
Brynn Anderson/AP Photo
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Black Iowans are incarcerated more than 9 times the rate of white Iowans, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, which found that racial disparities in Iowa's prisons continue to rank among the highest in the nation.

The racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons continue to rank among the highest in the country, according to the latest analysis by the advocacy group The Sentencing Project. While the state’s Black to white prison ratio has decreased somewhat in recent years, it’s still greater than almost any other state.

Iowa’s Black to white prison ratio is no longer the worst in the nation, as it was in 2007. According to the report released by The Sentencing Project, Iowa’s disproportionate rate of incarcerating Black residents now ranks seventh in the country.

Johnny Pippins, who is currently incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, sees this first hand. Pippins, who has degrees in sociology and statistics, spoke with IPR last year about his perception of Iowa’s inequities behind bars.

“I'm looking at these young men whose lives are just irrevocably changed by this. And they didn't have to be,” Pippins told IPR in 2020.

According to the latest analysis, Black Iowans are incarcerated at 9.3 times the rate of white Iowans, a slight improvement from 2016, when the rate was 11.1 to 1.

Still, Black Iowans continue to make up 25 percent of the state’s prison population, despite being just 4 percent of the total population.

“There’s been some improvements in the state of Iowa but it’s certainly not time to rest on any laurels because it’s still such a high racial disparity, one of the highest in the nation,” said Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the report’s author.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP says the trends are rooted in generations of discriminatory policy.

“Iowa has definitely had a history of over-incarcerating African Americans,” Andrews said. “We have a historical structure that has been built on racism, slavery and bias and that has carried on into our society from years before all the way until now.”

Andrews said that while the improvement is marginal, she’s pleased to see the state’s trends moving in the right direction.

Nellis reasoned that the slight decrease in Iowa’s Black to white ratio may be attributable to the passage of the state’s minority impact statement law in 2008, requiring analysts to examine how minority communities might be affected by certain proposed bills.

A number of other states have since followed suit, including Colorado, California, Florida and New Jersey. Still, Nellis acknowledged the adjustment in Iowa’s racial gap may also be due to a slight increase in the state’s white incarceration rate and growth in the overall Black population.

“There’s a lot at play,” Nellis said.

Pippins, when told of the latest findings, said there is no room for celebration over the state's marginal movement, which he described as "smoke and mirrors".

"America’s, in general, and Iowa’s, in particular, criminal justice system has a systemic race problem, a cancer," Pippins wrote to IPR in an email. "We cannot turn a blind eye to these tumors in our society and hope that they dissipate on their own. These ills must be treated."

“There’s been some improvements in the state of Iowa but it’s certainly not time to rest on any laurels because it’s still such a high racial disparity, one of the highest in the nation."
-Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst, The Sentencing Project

Andrews added that the disproportionate rates of incarceration have impacted generations of Black Iowans, by separating families, traumatizing communities and creating barriers to housing, employment, education and other public benefits, creating almost “insurmountable” circumstances.

“It becomes a never-ending cycle,” Andrews said.

As Iowa State University Department of Sociology professor Monic Behnken put it to IPR last year, the effect of incarceration on Black families has been devastating.

“[F]or a family in many ways, it's akin to a death,” Behnken said.

Researchers say that as a result, generations of Black families have struggled to escape a downward spiral of poverty and lack of opportunity, factors made worse by government policies and local attitudes that locked Black Iowans out of jobs, mortgages and entire communities.

“When people are released from prison, depending on the number of debts that they have to pay, they’re often pulled back into system when they’re unable to pay because perhaps they can’t get a job because they have a criminal background,” Andrews said. “You can’t overcome these circumstances.”

“When people are released from prison, depending on the number of debts that they have to pay, they’re often pulled back into system when they’re unable to pay because perhaps they can’t get a job because they have a criminal background [...] you can’t overcome these circumstances.”
-Betty Andrews, president, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP

In order to counteract these racial disparities, Nellis says state policymakers should scale back prison time for certain crimes and reform mandatory minimum sentences.

“Using prison less for drug-related offenses and using prison less for offenses that could be handled through other means instead of imprisonment is definitely preferred both in Iowa and everywhere else,” Nellis said. “The state could be more aggressive in terms of its attempts to mitigate the impact of imprisonment, particularly on its Black residents.”

State researchers have been making similar recommendations for years. Analysts within the Iowa Department of Human Rights have repeatedly pointed to mandatory minimums, the practice of waiving juveniles to adult court for certain crimes, and unequal sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses as areas for lawmakers to focus on.

“Penalty options for equalizing the amount of crack and powder cocaine has been discussed for a decade by [the Iowa Public Safety Advisory Board],” reads a report released last year by the Iowa Justice Advisory Board. “Iowa data presented to the PSAB suggest that this disparity in penalties contributes to disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans.”

In response to a request for comment, Iowa Department of Corrections spokesperson Nick Crawford said the agency is working to address the trends.

"As a department, we are committed to reducing racial disparities in our correctional system. Through careful data analysis, the Iowa Department of Corrections has been working hard to develop action plans, implement those plans, and recruit a more diverse workforce. By continuing these practices, we will find innovative ways to promote a more equitas system,” the written statement reads.

Andrews says that in order to counteract these disparities, reforms are needed at every stage of the criminal justice pipeline, from police interactions to pretrial agreements to sentencing and parole. While the challenge is significant, Andrews says she has no choice but to remain hopeful.

“In the African American community and culture we have always had to be optimistic and always had to believe that change is going to come, no matter how far off,” Andrews said. “We can’t afford not to be hopeful. Because if we give up we’re going to go back the other way.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Johnny Pippins.