Maximum security inmates being removed from Iowa prison

With the state's prison system being over capacity by nearly 13.7%, the state plans to transfer out some of the most dangerous prisoners to another penitentiary

By Emily Andersen
The Gazette

ANAMOSA, Iowa — Two years after prisoners tried to break out of the Anamosa State Penitentiary by bludgeoning a nurse and correctional officer to death, the state plans to transfer out some of the most dangerous prisoners there and decrease the prison's security rating.

The Anamosa facility currently holds both medium- and maximum-security level inmates, but "the majority" of inmates designated as maximum security will be moved to the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison — which becomes the state's only maximum security prison, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Anamosa State Penitentiary.
Anamosa State Penitentiary. (Photo/Liz Martin of The Gazette via AP)

The Corrections Department did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking clarification about how many inmates will be transferred and when, and whether the move is related to a safety review of Iowa's prisons conducted after the Anamosa escape attempt — a report that, except for a summary and timeline, has not been made public.

"Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, and in conjunction with Iowa's prison population declining, IDOC has the bed space and resources needed to safely conduct and implement this transition," Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner said in a news release.

Data from the department, however, showed that the state's prison system Tuesday was over capacity by nearly 13.7 percent — that there were 7,946 inmates Tuesday but capacity for 6,990. Both the Anamosa prison, with 915 inmates, and the Fort Madison prison, with 721, were over capacity Tuesday, according to the department, although not all of Iowa's nine prisons were.

On March 23, 2021, two Anamosa inmates serving time for robbery and other charges checked out hammers and a metal grinder under the guise of fixing something in the prison infirmary. They used the hammers to kill nurse Lorena Schulte, 50, and Officer Robert McFarland, 46, and took another employee hostage briefly and seriously wounded another inmate. They attempted to use the metal grinder to cut through bars on a window before they were caught.

Inmates Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard pleaded guilty to two counts each of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder and second-degree kidnapping, and will spend the rest of their lives in prison. They were both transferred from the Anamosa prison, and changes were made to enhance security at the facility, including removing some of the apprenticeship programs available to inmates.

Schulte's parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the state, the Anamosa prison, the Corrections Department, Iowa Prison Industries and the prison's warden at the time. On Tuesday, the defendants filed a motion seeking to have the suit dismissed, arguing in part that the parents' only remedy is to file a claim for workers' compensation benefits — not a lawsuit.

The Corrections Department did not reference the 2021 attack as a reason for removing maximum security prisoners from Anamosa.

"This decision was made after much consideration and detailed planning, and we feel certain that now is the time to make this transition. By transitioning Anamosa State Penitentiary to a strictly medium security facility, ( The Iowa Department of Corrections) can focus on providing even further treatment opportunities for the system's medium custody inmates, building upon two years of reducing Iowa's recidivism rate," Skinner said in a statement.

In August 2021, Andrew Boettger, the chair of the Iowa Board of Parole, told The Gazette he had a goal of reducing recidivism over the next two years so that by the end of fiscal 2023 — or by the end of June — the Iowa prison system would be at 100 percent capacity or less. Iowa prisons consistently have had more inmates than total capacity.

At the end of fiscal 2021, the prisons had 7,744 inmates, with a capacity of 6,933. At the end of fiscal 2022, the number of inmates had jumped to 8,434, according to Correction Department annual reports.

The fiscal 2022 report also shows a marked increase in serious injuries caused to staff at the prisons — from 12 in fiscal 2021 to 23 in fiscal 2022.

Staffing in Iowa prisons was discussed during the security review performed in 2021, after the Anamosa escape attempt. A report from consultant CGL Companies stated that challenges recruiting and retaining staff, when combined with the crowding of inmates, could be creating potential security risks.

Melissa Speed, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, which represents Iowa prison workers, said staffing consistently is an issue — there is a lot of turnover among officers, and the crowding of prisons in the facilities doesn't help. Speed said the state has been using different tactics including bonuses to attract more staff, but the turnover rate remains high.

The union and its members weren't informed of the security changes at Anamosa before it was announced publicly, Speed said, and she's worried about how the announcement will affect the morale of staff.

"These people go to work every day knowing what they're going to face, and then when you add this added angst of not knowing what's going on at your job place, that only adds to the morale issues, the fear. People think, 'today's the time that I need to get out and go find something else to do,'" Speed said.

Iowa Rep. Brian Lohse, a Republican from Bondurant who chairs the Iowa House's justice budget committee, said he's aware of staffing issues in the Corrections Department and is planning to reflect the need to hire and retain prison employees in the budget.

"It's one of our priorities, to do what we can to help relieve some of that shortage that they see," Lohse said. "All across the board, it doesn't matter which industry, be it the Department of Corrections or the family grocery store, people are struggling to find people. So, anything I can do to help relieve that, I'm committed to seeing what I can do from a budgetary standpoint."

Overtime spending for Iowa prison staff was 4 percent of the total payroll in fiscal 2022, which is a 1 percent increase from fiscal 2021, according to the annual report.

The Correction Department also announced that the Anamosa prison's warden, Kris Karberg, will be transferring into the warden position at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, effective Feb. 17. The current Fort Dodge warden, Nick Lamb, will be transferring to the warden position at Anamosa. Both wardens have multiple decades of experience in security operations and correctional work.


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