Union leader: Prison staffing in Iowa poses dangers

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DES MOINES – The head of the state’s largest public employees’ union warned Tuesday that correctional officers and staff at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison are at risk due to understaffing that needs to be addressed.

Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Iowa Council 61, issued a statement calling Iowa’s only maximum-security prison a “dangerous place” for workers, saying staffing is “so critically low” there aren’t enough employees to respond to medical or behavioral emergencies.

“The working conditions at ISP are an outrage,” Homan said in a statement. “The men and women protecting our inmates are, in their own words, walking into ISP not knowing if they will walk out at the end of the day. They are truly, and reasonably, afraid for their safety.”

Homan said there recently was a series of fights involving about 16 inmates and the discovery of makeshift weapons led to a lockdown without the staff necessary to ensure both inmate and officer safety. Also, he said, on multiple occasions in the past two weeks, at least 15 officers from state correctional facilities at Oakdale and Mount Pleasant were dispatched to the Fort Madison penitentiary “to assist with shakedowns – a clear indication that ISP is desperately in need of more support.”

The AFSCME leader called on Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, state lawmakers and the Iowa Department of Corrections to examine staffing trends at the penitentiary and “allocate the staff funding to run a safe and secure facility.”

“We have to do better for our public servants,” Homan said in his statement. “We can’t sit by and let them walk into preventable danger day after day.”

Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, declined to comment on Homan’s statement.

On July 31, officials at the Fort Madison prison said the penitentiary had been placed on “restricted movement” with inmates confined to their cells following several altercations. The incidents involved multiple offenders with no serious injuries to inmates and no staff injuries, according to the department’s July 31 news release.

Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, co-leader of the Legislature’s joint justice systems appropriations subcommittee, said he has not heard of any concerns specific to the Fort Madison facility but added he is aware the is “stress” system-wide given the tight funding allocations within the state’s fiscal 2017 budget.

“We’ve got situations where the manpower’s just not there,” said Worthan, noting it is difficult to schedule vacations when state agency budgets are tight. That’s been true for state troopers who have seen extra duties related to the National Governors’ Association’s summer meeting in Des Moines, the statewide RAGBRAI bike ride and now the Iowa State Fair, which opens an 11-day run on Thursday.

“The entire justice systems budget, it put some stress on it, there’s no way around it. Nobody got enough money for salary annualization,” he said, “let alone any increase in manpower.” At the same time, he said, he has not heard from corrections officials regarding any need for supplemental funding.

Worthan said he had not seen Homan’s statement but he noted union officials occasionally raise staffing concerns to get the top “on the public’s radar” before the next legislative session convenes in January.

In responding to Homan’s claims, Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes made note that the AFSCME leader also serves as vice chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

“The vice chair of the Democrat Party, Danny Homan, is only interested in taking cheap political partisan shots,” Hammes said in a statement. “Gov. Branstad will keep his focus on the effective management of taxpayer resources at the Department of Corrections and the public safety of Iowans.”

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