Escalating violence at the Iowa Department of Corrections’ (DOC) facilities are endangering both correctional officers as well as offenders. Reynolds’ budget crisis is driving Iowa correctional facilities to pack offenders together, stretching prisons beyond maximum capacity by nearly 14%. The Republican-controlled Legislature added to the chaos by cutting funding for DOC by $7.6 million from 2016 levels.
Combine that with cuts to correctional staff and we are seeing dangerous increases in the ratio of offenders to staff. The total DOC staff level in 2009 was 3,064 vs. 2,390 in 2017. That’s a huge 22% reduction in staffing levels. The offender levels basically stayed the same while staff levels plummeted. Supervising ever greater numbers of offenders per officer puts these correctional officers at great risk.
In addition, in response to the Republicans’ stripping of collective bargaining rights from corrections staff, the DOC management have ended regular communication with their own staff and union representatives. Imagine a business that refuses to meet and discuss problems with their employees.
Union leaders have been warning for years that continuing cuts to staff levels and cramming offenders together beyond designed capacity would be a recipe for more violence. They have repeatedly warned that growing gang activity and increased drug use is bringing greater violence endangering both corrections officers and other inmates. The recent multiple attacks and stabbings of correctional officers in October has resulted in prison lock downs in an attempt to restore control. A July riot involving more than 80 inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) was downplayed by the DOC administration, referring to it as an incident and initially failing to describe the large number of inmates involved in the yard fights.
On October 31st AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan issued this press release following the officer stabbing on October 18th at the (ISP).
“All across the state, conditions are worsening with no end in sight … Six more shanks were found in the shakedown following the stabbing at ISP … Last week, the Clarinda Correctional Facility had multiple race-fueled fights resulting in restricted movement. Correctional Officers there continue to find inmates under the influence of THC, K2, and ‘hooch’ (homemade wine), though the latter is no longer a punishable offense. These officers are expected to control this free-for-all circus while the Administration cuts staffing levels. One officer is now required to watch two units, just to save on overtime costs … I truly hoped that a Correctional Officer being stabbed five times with two ten-inch shanks would be reason enough for Kim Reynolds and the Department of Corrections to finally take this health and safety crisis seriously,” said Homan.
Correctional officers live with offenders 24/7 and are the first to hear and see any increase in violence, drug use or gang activity. These frontline staff serve as an effective early warning system alerting others to any potential problems. The DOC managements’ refusal to meet and listen to the officers and their union representatives is a massive failure of this essential communication. Homan is rightly frustrated and concerned that his warnings and calls for communication are getting ignored.
“We have offered time and time again to meet to discuss meaningful ways our correctional facilities could be improved, both for staff and inmate safety, but it has been made clear that this is not a priority of the DOC … While the Warden at ISP gladly meets with the inmate council, the collective voice for offenders, she still refuses requests for meetings by local union leadership,” according to Homan.
Homan’s warnings are substantiated by Robin Delaney, editor of the Fort Madison Daily Democrat newspaper. Delaney, who has many friends and relatives employed at ISP, follows the events at the prison very closely. She expressed her concern in a recent article about prison management covering up problems and dismissing safety issues at the prison.
“No, I’m just sick of it – all of it – the secrecy and sugar-coating comments by ISP and state correctional officials. I’m sick of the blame game they play – more worried about who leaked details to me than addressing the real problems of low staff levels and other concerns from local union representatives,” said Delaney.
She went on to describe how communication with ISP and the community has deteriorated under the current administration. She added that in the past, “communication between ISP administrators and the community, often via the local media, was better … More importantly, we residents felt safer and worried less about our friends, neighbors and loved ones working behind those walls. I think the change is due more to the micromanaging by Iowa Department of Corrections officials than by ISP administrators.”
Governor Reynolds is ultimately responsible to keep Iowa state correctional officers safe from violence. It’s her management responsibility to make certain the DOC has open communication with union representatives and the public in local prison communities. Reynolds can no longer coast, she must engage and insist on increasing staff levels and reduce overcrowding. Iowans’ lives are at risk and Governor Reynolds must quit ignoring the serious and growing violence in Iowa’s correctional facilities.
by Rick Smith
Photo via Random Iowa