116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Gov. Kim Reynolds has vowed to conduct internal and external investigations into the deaths of two Anamosa Penitentiary employees killed by inmates during a failed escape attempt last month. A new security director will be on the job at the Department of Corrections.
Republicans who run the Legislature and who previously proposed a $4 million increase in corrections funding are now proposing a $20 million boost. Democrats and their allies in the union representing corrections staff say it’s not enough. They blame chronic underfunding under the GOP’s watch for reduced staff safety in state prison. The rhetoric has been heated.
Funding is important. But this would seem like a prime moment for the Legislature to dust off one of its most important functions — providing oversight of state government. Lawmakers should be holding public hearings while seeking facts and answers. Putting politics aside in this era is all but impossible, but that’s exactly what lawmakers must do. Public safety is a fundamental state function.
And there are troubling signs of dysfunction.
Last year, Iowa OSHA fined the Department of Corrections for safety violations at Anamosa, including not providing reliable radios for staff to use in an emergency, among other infractions. Iowa OSHA also cited the department for radio problems at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center near Coralville. A staff member was assaulted in Aug. 2020 and was unable to use his radio to call for help, according to the Iowa OSHA citation.
The department is contesting both citations. But it also filed and then pulled legislation to limit when Iowa OSHA can conduct inspections in the wake of a violent incident.
The Des Moines Register reported that Iowa OSHA inspectors were recently denied access to the Iowa Medical and Classification facility to follow up on union complaints about safety issues. Corrections staff directed OSHA to first seek a warrant.
Pouring more dollars into a system with a record of cutting corners on staff safety isn’t the first step legislators should be taking. They should be using oversight powers to dig more deeply into the department’s handling of safety concerns that, we have learned tragically, have life and death consequences.
Republicans have been reluctant to provide oversight of executive branch agencies, led by Reynolds, a Republican. Political optics demand defending the governor and disputing the union’s claims.
But this attack and its aftermath deserve far more from lawmakers than politics as usual. They deserve oversight and leadership.
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