Iowa's prisons overcrowded, understaffed, security review shows

The systemwide review was sparked by the March 23 murders of two employees at the Anamosa State Penitentiary


By Erin Jordan
The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A seven-month security review of Iowa's prison system shows crowding and challenges recruiting and retaining staff create potential security risks in Iowa's nine prisons.

The systemwide review was sparked by the March 23 murders of two employees at the Anamosa State Penitentiary by offenders Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard. The Iowa Corrections Department launched the investigation in May, following a request for proposals in which consultant CGL Companies, based in Florida, was selected to conduct the review.

This file photo shows Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa.
This file photo shows Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa. (Photo/Liz Martin of The Gazette via AP)

Dutcher and Woodard both were convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for fatally striking Correctional Officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte in the head with prison-issued hammers. The offenders took another employee hostage briefly and seriously wounded another inmate.

The Corrections Department did not make the entire security review public, instead releasing just a four-page summary and a timeline of events since March 23.

A point emphasized several times in the summary was Iowa's prison system can't recruit and retain enough correctional officers and nurses to adequately staff its prisons.

The Iowa Department of Corrections "would benefit from bolstering staffing to meet current facility security requirements and the challenges of managing a modern correctional system," CGL Companies wrote in a four-page summary. "Existing staffing gaps create high levels of overtime that exacerbate the already difficult issue of staff retention."

CGL recommends using retention bonuses to keep employees and continuing time-and-a-half pay for nurses. The consultant says the department also should enhance and standardize training, key to keeping good employees.

The Iowa Legislature in May approved $20 million in additional money for the Corrections Department, with a large share to be used to fill vacancies. It is not clear whether the security review addressed staffing levels before or after the cash infusion.

The summary notes Iowa's prison system — unlike those in other states reducing offender population — continues to be overcapacity. As of Dec. 13, the system was 16 percent overbooked, with 8,106 offenders in facilities with a total capacity of 6,990, the summary states.

"This level of crowding exacerbates existing operational challenges in security, offender management, and service delivery, while placing significant additional pressure on custody staff," the summary states. "The additional workload and heightened tension created by crowding is a major factor in the Department's current staff recruitment and retention issues."

The summary does not give any recommendations for reducing crowding in the facilities.

Because Dutcher and Woodard used hammers to kill Schulte and McFarland and tried to cut through prison bars with a metal grinder, the review focused in part on access to tools in Iowa's prisons and on offender work roles.

CGL found the Corrections Department needs to develop a better screening process to match offenders' behavior history and characteristics to their work assignments.

"At each facility, we found varying levels of tool and toxic chemical control practices," the consultant noted. "To improve consistency of the control of toxic chemicals we recommend transitioning to a system of centralized storage and issuance of chemicals/toxics at each facility. To better facilitate offender movement, the IDOC should institute consistent inmate movement protocols."

Since the attack, Iowa prison staff have restricted offender movement, particularly within the Anamosa prison, which is maximum/medium security. Fewer inmates are involved in work training and several apprenticeship programs have been eliminated because they involve working with tools.

Corrections Director Beth Skinner said in a prepared statement the agency plans to work "hand-in-hand with our facilities around the state to implement" recommendations made in CGL's report.

Some lawmakers questioned the selection of CGL, whose subsidiary, CGL Facility Management, paid a $750,000 settlement in 2018 related to a Mississippi bribery scandal involving a state corrections official, the Des Moines Register reported. Corrections officials told the Register they did not have a problem with the lack of disclosure because it was only CGL Facilities Management, not CGL Companies, involved in the Mississippi incident.

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(c)2021 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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