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Iowa’s prisons and jails make for ‘a perfect storm for outbreaks of COVID-19’

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An inmate at the Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility practices guided meditation and yoga, March 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

As Iowans — and people around the country — are grappling with changes to their daily lives, jails and prisons are facing their own challenges keeping staff and inmates safe.

Practicing social distancing, staying home and avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people are recommendations Gov. Kim Reynolds has been stressing to Iowans, as the state tries to limit the spread of COVID-19. As of the morning of March 23, there are 105 confirmed cases in Iowa. About a third of the confirmed cases are in Johnson County.

But those recommendations are not as simple for correctional systems, where there is crowding, ventilation issues and people coming in and out.

Iowa’s prisons are overcrowded, and are currently 23 percent over their designed capacity. There are 8,519 inmates, as of March 23, as well as 2,700 employees of the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) in the state’s prisons. In addition, approximately 3,600 people are incarcerated across the state in county jails, according to the ACLU of Iowa.

DOC and local jails — including in Linn and Johnson counties — have begun to take measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in their facilities, including the release of around 700 individuals by the DOC who were already determined to be eligible for release by the state’s Board of Parole, Iowa Capital Dispatch reported.

But the ACLU of Iowa and 25 other organizations want to see more measures put in place. They submitted a letter to state and county officials with recommended changes in light of COVID-19.

The organizations are calling for a reduction in the jail population by avoiding making new arrests for low-level, nonviolent crimes, dismissing charges for minor offenses and releasing people who are in jail because they can’t afford bail.

The letter requests that county jails promptly release individuals due to be released in the next 60 days, and asks Gov. Kim Reynolds to commute the sentences of anyone whose sentence would end in one year.

“People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer said in a statement. “They are housed in close quarters. Many were already in poor health when they were incarcerated. This makes for a perfect storm for outbreaks of COVID-19.”

The visitation room at the Johnson County Jail. — Johnson County Sheriff’s Department

DOC spokesperson Cord Overton said in an email to Little Village, prior to the ACLU of Iowa’s letter, that the DOC has “robust policy and plans in place related to pandemic viruses.”

“We are currently implementing several components of our plan preemptively in order to prepare for the possibility of a case in the prison environment, and also customized this policy for the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

Overton said that quarantine protocols would be “initiated immediately” once a case is confirmed at an institution. If someone displays symptoms of COVID-19, they will be isolated. Each correctional facility is supposed to receive five to six tests, DOC director Beth Skinner told Iowa Capital Dispatch.

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A screening protocol has also been developed for people coming in and out of the prisons, Overton said. And since non-attorney visits were suspended earlier this month, the DOC is working to offer reduced-cost phone calls and e-mails, as well video visitation “as quickly as possible,” according to Overton.

The jails in Linn and Johnson counties have also begun to implement additional measures to protect inmates and staff against the pandemic.

Neither of the jails is overcrowded by definition. Johnson County jail has 43 inmates with a capacity to hold 92, and Linn County jail has around 300 inmates with a capacity to hold 401.

In an email to Little Village last Tuesday, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner sent a list of 14 measures the jail has implemented. As of March 22, inmate visitation is canceled.

In addition to screening those coming into the jail and cleaning the jail more frequently, the measures include not accepting any defendants who have scheduled or want to schedule their jail time until after May 4, releasing all work release inmates in custody and allowing inmates to send seven free letters per week (instead of the normal two). There is also an effort to provide free or reduced-cost phone calls.

In neighboring Johnson County, Sgt. Brad Kunkel told Little Village last week that jail staff has been proactively cleaning the jail, visitation has stopped and every inmate is screened when they enter the jail. There is also the capability of isolating people if that becomes necessary, Kunkel said.


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