Iowa’s prison population is below 8,000 for the first time in 20 years as officials try to stem coronavirus outbreaks at several facilities.
Iowa’s nine prisons had 7,406 offenders as of Friday morning — still above the system’s capacity of 6,933, but well below the nearly 8,494 offenders the system held in early April. With nearly 1,100 fewer offenders, prison officials have been able to quarantine inmates with the virus and create “presumptive positive units” for others who have been exposed.
“We’ve had COVID in three of our prisons with significant spread and we’ve been able to contain it,” state Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner told the Board of Corrections on Friday.
The Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville has had two outbreaks, one in April and one that started in August and is ongoing, Skinner said. Of the center’s 722 offenders, 50 have tested positive in the latest surge, the department reported on its COVID-19 website. Seven of its staff members have positive tests now.
The Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility has 130 positive cases among offenders and four among staff. Fort Dodge had a major outbreak earlier in the summer.
Since March, Iowa’s prison system has had 833 offenders and 126 staff test positive for COVID-19, with four offenders who have died from the disease, Skinner said.
More than 115,000 inmates nationwide had contracted the virus as of Sept. 1, according to a report by the Associated Press and the Marshall Project.
The 10 percent reduction in Iowa prisoners from the fiscal 2019 end-of-year census to 2020 was caused, in part, by the state expediting parole for older or sicker offenders, but also by delays in court proceedings and requests by the prison system for county jails to hold some offenders longer.
“Since May, we have shut down admissions twice now,” Skinner said. “We have about 214 individuals sitting in jails waiting to come to IMCC.”
Corrections Department requests to put off transfers from county jails to the Medical and Classification Center — which processes all adult prisoners before they go to other facilities — contributed to a 13 percent declined in admissions overall for fiscal 2020.
“When we study the data, it appears that the single largest factor that has resulted in the reduced prison population was when the admissions were suspended when IMCC experienced their first outbreak of COVID-19 this spring,” department spokesman Cord Overton said.
But officials in Linn and Johnson counties, two of the largest counties in the state, said these delays wouldn’t have made that big of a difference.
“I’m not sure why the numbers are down, but it’s not like we’re keeping people in the county jails instead of sending them to the prisons,” said Linn County Capt. Pete Wilson. “I think it’s kind of slowed down in the courts.”
Since March 14, only emergency and essential Iowa court hearings have been held face-to-face. The judicial branch conducts some business through videoconference or teleconference, but many proceedings have been stalled during the pandemic.
“The court system, for lack of a better word, shut down and trials haven’t been happening,” Johnson County Capt. John Good said.
Trials start up again Monday under state Supreme Court guidelines.
Nine eastern Iowa jails surveyed in late March showed they together had reduced their populations by more than 30 percent from the beginning of that month. They did this by furloughing inmates who were serving shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes and those on work release. Johnson County judges were allowing arresting officers to cite and release people for lower-level offenses rather than taking them to jail.
The ACLU Iowa is glad prison numbers are down — something the group wanted for years.
“It’s evidence that in the course of a couple of months, the prison population was reduced and the sky didn’t fall down,” said Daniel Zeno, policy and advocacy director.
Zeno would like to see Iowa continue to reduce the number of people locked up in the first place. “That’s where we have to do more work. Should people be going to jail for a variety of crimes or can they be issued a citation or sent to a diversion program?”
The number of people paroled from Iowa’s prison system went up from 2,595 in fiscal 2019 to 3,023 in fiscal 2020 — a 16.5 percent increase, state data show.
The Board of Parole, mindful of trying to reduce the prison population during COVID-19, took steps that included allowing two boards to work simultaneously to release more offenders who were not considered high risk, said Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General.
“The Board and Department have identified logical targets relative to expedited release options in light of this current COVID-19 reality,” Board Vice Chair Andrew Boettger said in an April 3 news release.
While Iowa is the only state in the country that doesn’t have a compassionate release law, which allows early release for terminal illness, extreme old age or sickness, the Corrections Department and Parole Board have worked to identify more offenders who could be paroled during the pandemic.
“We look at people 60 and over or people with significant health concerns to see if they would be good candidates for release,” Skinner said. “We have to keep in mind public safety.”
In prisons with outbreaks, offenders are tested for COVID-19 at least once a week, Skinner said Friday.
“We are pretty much testing everyone at this point in time to be on the safe side,” she said.
In facilities without active cases, staff do temperature and symptom checks and if an offender has symptoms, he or she is tested. The department’s medical staff has been working with the Iowa Department of Public Health and county health departments to monitor positivity rates in the community and in the prisons to determine testing frequency, Skinner said.
Skinner said she has visited every prison with positive cases and talked with inmates who are confined to their cells much of the day without visitors and group activities.
“Some are frustrated,” she said. “But they have a pretty good attitude understanding we are going to get through this and we are looking out for their safety.”
Dr. Jerry Greenfield, department health services administrator, told the Corrections Board that offenders who are in isolation now have shorter quarantines than in April because medical staff have learned more about COVID-19’s contagious period.
The department also allows offenders to have more books, music, personal property and drinks like Gatorade.
The department has psychologists in each prison facility to work with offenders who are feeling more anxiety or depression because of lockdowns.
The Corrections Department has completed its review of how the Medical and Classification Center followed COVID-19 procedures leading up to the first outbreak in April, Skinner said. This review led to the abrupt retirement May 8 of former Warden James McKinney.
“We had very clear guidelines in our pandemic policy,” Skinner said, referring to rules about cleaning prisons, wearing personal protective equipment and keeping offenders socially distant when possible. “We had some indicators early on at IMCC that protocols might not have been followed. We stepped in to ensure staff and incarcerated were safe.”
The Corrections Board in July appointed Mike Heinricy as the new warden. Skinner said she could not comment on specific steps that were taken after the review.
“We tightened things down,” she said. “We wanted to make sure all our prisons are following those guidelines.”
Skinner thanked offenders and their families for patience during the pandemic. She said prison staff are the “heroes” for doing difficult jobs while wearing masks, shields and other gear and for working to keep offenders safe.
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