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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The only safe prison is an empty one
Iowa taxpayers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the justice system. It’s worth considering what kind of return we’re getting on that investment.
Apr. 9, 2021 6:00 am, Updated: Apr. 9, 2021 8:26 am
State policymakers this week are responding to the killings of two correctional officers at Anamosa State Penitentiary last month.
Republicans and Democrats are planning to throw money at the apparent safety problem, they only disagree about how much. A bipartisan House committee this week approved a $20 million budget increase for corrections, though Democrats want a much bigger spending hike.
The prisons are understaffed, workers and advocates say. But few in positions of power are talking about the other side of the equation - that our prisons are overpopulated.
“There’s only one way we can fix this, only one, and that’s to hire the appropriate number of staff we need at Anamosa, at every correctional institution in this state and at all the other facilities in this state,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61.
It takes a willful lack of imagination to say more funding is the only way to make correctional facilities safer. A better, cheaper and more humane solution would be to put fewer people in cages.
Iowa’s prisons have been over capacity for years. Government leaders have focused on preventing released prisoners from re-offending, but they’ve shown little progress.
The state prison population last year reached its lowest point in 20 years, though that was largely attributable to pandemic precautions, not a deliberate smart-on-crime strategy. As of this week, the system remains over capacity by about 10 percent.
Iowa taxpayers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the justice system, so it’s worth considering what kind of return we’re getting on that investment.
One goal of the system is to keep employees safe. If that’s the only goal, we could just lock prisoners in a building with no staff to fend for themselves.
Another goal is to “reform” offenders into “productive members of society.” On that, we’re not doing very well.
The state’s recidivism rate - measuring how many released prisoners end up being incarcerated again - has crept up in recent years to about 40 percent in fiscal year 2020. The inmates accused of carrying out the recent killings in Anamosa both had run-ins with the law before their most recent sentences.
Only 38 percent of Iowa prisoners last year were in on violent crimes. Thirty percent were classified as drug or public order offenders. The fact that Iowa was able to safely reduce the prison population by 10 percent during the pandemic has to make us wonder whether all those people need to be in cages at all.
Meanwhile in national politics, a Republican U.S. senator this week said the country has “a major under-incarceration problem.” But the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s prisoners, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Maybe Americans are just uniquely criminal compared to citizens of other countries. Maybe thousands of Iowans are truly dangerous people who need to be kept away from the public. Or maybe the system is failing and there’s a better way.
The state can build more cells and hire more officers, but that won’t change the fact that the only safe prison is an empty one.
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