116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa will hire an outside firm to conduct a review of its prisons, following the killings of two employees by inmates in March at Anamosa State Penitentiary.
But state officials can’t say whether the findings of that review will be disclosed to the public. This seems to be part of a pattern where Iowa government leaders are reluctant to disclose sensitive information, even when the public deserves to know.
A guard and a nurse were killed this year during an escape attempt. The deaths underscore a problem some stakeholders have been sounding the alarm over for more than a decade — too many prisoners and not enough staff in Iowa’s prison system.
The Department of Corrections is seeking proposals from a vendor to conduct an institutional review. A department spokesman recently said he couldn’t confirm whether a report will be made public, The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reported last week.
While some information might reasonably have to be withheld for security reasons, the presumption should be in favor of disclosure.
The state is also asking corrections peers in neighboring states to investigate the attack, and workplace safety regulators are doing their own investigation. Those findings, too, should be disclosed to the greatest extent possible under the law.
Leaving open the possibility of withholding investigation reports is just one example of a department’s strong collective instinct to shy away from public scrutiny.
In the days following the killings, Iowans got more useful information from advocates than from state authorities. While officials gave basic information about the incident, opposing politicians and union leaders offered crucial context about the conditions precipitating the attack.
The number of correctional officers in Iowa is near its lowest level in at least 30 years, Des Moines Register investigative reporter Daniel Lathrop reported last week, with the ratio of prisoners to officers rising above the national average.
To piece together those figures, the Register had to review 25 years of state salary data because there is no other publicly available tally of correctional officers over time. The department’s annual reports include many statistics about prisoners but almost none about employees and how staffing levels have changed over time.
We know from experience that government officials don’t take on difficult tasks on their own, they need the voice of a watching public. Accountability can only happen with transparency.
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