116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The number of prisoners enrolled in work training at the Anamosa State Penitentiary is down 78 percent since March, when two offenders used prison-issued hammers to bludgeon to death two employees in an escape attempt.
The prison’s metal and wood furniture shops have been closed because workers there used heavy-duty tools — now a bigger security concern.
The closures have dramatically reduced the opportunities for Anamosa offenders to participate in apprenticeships, shown to reduce recidivism and improve an ex-offender’s likelihood of getting a job on the outside.
“Security is the main priority right now, as it should be,” said Dane Sulentic, the Corrections Department’s apprenticeship coordinator. ”What happened in March was a wake-up call.“
Iowa has 30 apprenticeship programs with nearly 300 offenders enrolled across all nine state prisons as of earlier this spring. Since 2015, more than 1,000 offenders have participated in apprenticeship programs and 330 have graduated from the U.S. Department of Labor-certified programs.
Apprenticeship offerings are varied, including audio visual repairer, baker, cook, cabinet maker, electrician, housekeeper, office manager, upholsterer and sewing machine repairer, with all apprenticeships tied to jobs needed in the prison system.
The Iowa Economic Development Authority awarded the department $80,000 this year to help pay for the apprenticeship programs. Corrections also gets financial support from Iowa Workforce Development.
“Registered apprenticeship in itself is a pathway to a career rather than a four-year college degree,” said Jill Lippincott, the authority’s targeted small business certification project manager. “They (offenders) can start an apprenticeship when they are in a facility and oftentimes our facilities are working with Iowa Workforce Development teams to look for employers to pick up their training upon their release.”
The Iowa Department of Corrections apprenticeship programs highlight the importance of workforce development in the state. Workforce is one of challenges facing the state that will be discussed Thursday and Friday during The Gazette’s annual Iowa Ideas conference. Register for free to participate in the virtual conference at iowaideas.com.
Workforce Development has advisers in four Iowa prisons to provide job readiness skills, such as resume writing, and connect offenders nearing the ends of their terms and employers on the outside.
“Registered apprenticeships are a good example of a career pathway that allows incarcerated individuals to learn a skilled trade through on-the-job training and related classroom instruction — thus increasing their chances to find employment in a high-demand field and earn a living wage when they’re released,” Shelley Seitz, reentry workforce program coordinator for Iowa Workforce Development, said in an email.
Anamosa, a maximum/medium security facility that can house up to 950 offenders, had the bulk of workshops for Iowa Prison Industries, which provides work training to Iowa’s incarcerated men and women. When The Gazette visited in 2017, work of apprentices was visible throughout the prison: flowers planted by landscapers, picnic tables powder-coated blue and road signs drying after being screen printed.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s apprenticeship programs had hubs at Anamosa before the March 23 attack. That’s when things changed.
Michael Dutcher, 28, and Thomas Woodard, 39, were not apprentices, but were working on the prison maintenance crew when they checked out hammers and a metal grinder under the pretense of fixing something in the infirmary.
Instead, they used the hammers to beat to death Robert McFarland, a correctional officer from Ely, and Lorena Schulte, a registered nurse from Cedar Rapids. They also struck another offender on the head, severely injuring him. The men attempted to use the metal grinder to cut through bars on the window, but their escape plot was discovered.
Woodard and Dutcher pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and second-degree kidnapping and will spent the rest of their lives in prison. Both have been transferred from Anamosa, but the aftermath of the attack has been felt by offenders at all state prisons.
Dining halls have been closed, causing some offenders to eat in their cells. Electronics repair shops are shuttered, which means some offenders can’t get fixes on the electronic devices they use to communicate with families. Six months later, there still are limits on exercise and outdoor time.
Iowa Public Radio in August reported on an Iowa family who saw their son, incarcerated at Anamosa, become withdrawn and bitter after the state closed the prison’s woodworking shop, where he previously had spent hours carving intricate wooden figures.
The number of men working for Iowa Prison Industries at Anamosa has dropped from 180 to 40 since the attack.
There were 50 Anamosa offenders working toward apprenticeships in March. Now there are 20. Some men still are working on coursework toward their apprenticeship certificates, but no one is doing hands-on work, Sulentic said.
The Corrections Department is the process of installing new fencing and other undisclosed security measures that will allow Anamosa to gradually increase the number of apprenticeship participants by next spring, spokesman Nick Crawford said in an email.
“We have not yet determined the final number of men that will be allowed back into the program,” he said.
Welding, cabinet making and metal fabricator-assembler have been popular apprenticeships with more than 50 people enrolled before the attack. But those apprenticeships may never return to Iowa’s prisons.
“I don't want to say they'll never be offered again at Anamosa, but it looks like those will be suspended for the time being,” Sulentic said. “However, we will definitely look at other options and potentially implement new programs to the facility to provide other opportunities for guys to enroll in an apprenticeship.”
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