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Union Leader Says Budget Increase Not Enough To Make Iowa Prisons Safe

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, speaks at a podium on the steps in front of the Iowa State Capitol.
Grant Gerlock
Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, called on Iowa lawmakers to fully staff state prisons after an attack that killed two workers at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

The leader of the labor union representing Iowa corrections officers says a proposed budget increase for next year is not enough to provide safe working conditions in Iowa prisons.

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61 in Iowa, says the killings of corrections officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte at the Anamosa State Penitentiary last month should be a call to action for lawmakers to address chronic understaffing issues.

Homan said he believes low staffing contributed to the incident in which two inmates allegedly attacked McFarland and Schulte while attempting to escape.

“Those attacks should have never happened,” Homan said at a press conference in front of the Iowa State Capitol Tuesday morning. “Many of you out here have heard me say this, that if staffing inside the Department of Corrections does not get better someone is going to die. Two weeks ago, unfortunately, that prediction came true.”

House Republicans are proposing an increase of more than $20 million to the Iowa Department of Corrections budget next year. In a meeting on the bill Tuesday, Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, explained the additional funding would nearly make up for two years of unmet salary increases.

“This is the first time in 11 years that I feel that we have really approached the problems in all of the departments across this budget and done them a lot of good at this point in time,” said Worthan, chair of the Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I think this puts out there in big, bold letters that we support our law enforcement people," he said. "We support our justice people. We support those people that are guarding our institutions and taking care of the offenders.”

Homan said the increase is less than what is needed because it does not increase staffing inside state prisons.

“I hate to be a guy that turns my nose up at getting $20 million of additional funding, but that $20 million doesn’t cover the salary increases of the last two years,” Homan said.

In a statement, House Republican leaders promoted the budget proposal (LSB 1005YA) as the largest increase for Corrections since 2012. The Senate has not yet introduced a detailed budget plan for IDOC.

In addition to fully staffing Iowa prisons, Homan said the state should reinstate a training program for prison workers and he called for lawmakers to restore collective bargaining rights for health and safety issues.

Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said without those bargaining rights, workers have less leverage to address safety problems.

“If we would restore collective bargaining, if we’d roll back and let these correctional officers be heard and have the right to negotiate workplace safety, this may not have happened.” said Prichard, the Iowa House Minority Leader. “But we’ve taken that voice away.”

Homan said AFSCME plans to re-file a complaint with OSHA regarding conditions for prison workers in the Anamosa facility.

Prichard and Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, joined Homan in calling for state funding for an outside group to investigate the attacks.

Homan also called for the warden of the Anamosa Penitentiary at the time of the murders to be fired. Jeremy Larson has since been reassigned as the interim warden of the Newton Correctional Facility.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa