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After the March 23 murders of a correctional officer and a nurse at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, AFSCME Council 61, the union that represents many prison workers, has criticized the state for understaffing at its prisons.
The staff vacancy numbers reported by AFSCME, however, are different from those reported by the Iowa Department of Corrections. The Fact Checker decided to check staffing statements from Council 61 President Danny Homan to see if the union’s numbers are correct.
It’s an important question because two inmates — Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard — are charged with murder based on allegations they were able to use prison hammers to beat to death Lorena Schulte and Robert McFarland. Questions remain about how the inmates were able to get the hammers and whether more staffing could have prevented the killings.
Homan sent a letter March 31 to Gov. Kim Reynolds and leaders of the Iowa House and Senate that said: “Currently, there are 234 vacant positions within the Department of Corrections — including 14 vacant correctional officer positions at Anamosa.”
In an April 6 news conference in Des Moines, Homan said: “There are roughly 250 vacant positions inside the Department of Corrections. Of those, 120 are correctional officers and 60 nurses.”
Let’s look at the statement about Anamosa vacancies. When we asked AFSCME Political Director Troy Price for sourcing materials, he sent several documents prepared by the Legislative Services Agency for the Senate Democratic caucus that had been provided to the union. The Fact Checker confirmed with the agency that the reports came from its Fiscal Services Division, which “provides analysis and evaluation of expenditures, revenues and operations of state government …” The legislative agency is nonpartisan.
One report, titled “Anamosa positions filled and vacancies 3-5-21,” says that as of that date, there were 45 vacant positions of those authorized by Iowa Code.
Of 233 authorized security positions, 219 were filled and 14 were vacant on March 5, according to the report. The vacancy rate was 6 percent. For nurses at the Anamosa prison, there were 28 authorized and only 18 filled, meaning the vacancy rate on March 5 was nearly 36 percent.
A similar report also prepared by the agency, but this time dated March 31, broke down position-by-position vacancies at each of the state’s other eight prisons. If you add up all the vacancies listed at each prison, including Anamosa, as of March 31, it comes to 265. The report says there are 122 security vacancies and 64 nursing vacancies, which mostly matches Homan’s statement April 6.
Price said Homan’s March 31 statement that there were 234 vacancies systemwide was based on earlier data received from the state. The number of employees is frequently changing as people are hired and others quit or are fired. But because the March 31 report listed an even larger number of prison vacancies than the number quoted by Homan, he was not exaggerating the number.
When The Gazette asked Cord Overton, spokesman for the Corrections Department on April 2 for vacancy data, Overton said as of March 18, the prisons were allowed 2,540 employees, with 54.53 unfunded and 2,360 filled. Another “128.63 have been approved to hire, and are in the process of being filled,” Overton wrote.
So if you add up 128.63 positions that are vacant, but being filled, and the 54.53 unfunded, it comes out to 183.16 open positions as of March 18. That’s more than 80 positions less than the overall vacancy number using the legislative agency’s data showing 265.
The reason those numbers are different is because the legislative agency took its data from the Table of Authorized Positions, which is maintained by the Department of Administrative Services, the state’s human resources agency. This table doesn’t take into account what the legislature approves for funding and allows positions to be carried over as vacant year to year.
The Corrections Department took its numbers from the State Budget Schedule, which is updated every year based on how much money lawmakers allocate for the agency. Because this document is updated and removes positions that repeatedly aren’t funded, the department thinks it is more accurate, Overton said.
Both are legitimate ways to measure vacancies. It makes sense AFSCME would choose data from the total authorized table because it may better reflect what the actual needs are for staffing. But the State Budget Schedule is more realistic since it factors in how much money is available from the state.
Since Iowa lawmakers are now considering whether to allocate extra funds to the Corrections Department — proposals range from $6.3 million to $20 million more in fiscal 2022 — it may be important to see both sets of vacancy numbers.
AFSCME’s Homan quotes some varying numbers for total prison vacancies, but all of them were at or under the total vacancy numbers provided by the nonpartisan legislative agency based on the Table of Authorized Positions. We give his statements on understaffing an A.
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This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.