116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — The number of inmates held in Iowa prisons crept up last fiscal year but the population was down significantly from the record count of a decade ago as COVID-19 has forced policymakers to adjust to changing dynamics the virus has created within institutional settings.
New data released by the Iowa Department of Corrections shows 7,744 inmates were housed in the state's nine correctional institutions in Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Mitchellville, Oakdale, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Newton and Rockwell City at the end of the 2021 fiscal year.
That was up 175 from the previous count on June 30, 2020, but well below the record of 9,009 inmates held behind bars in the state's correctional system on April 9, 2011, when the prisoner count exceeded the system’s design capacity by 22 percent, according to state records. The fiscal 2021 offender count was 12 percent above the capacity of 6,933.
Inmate numbers dropped below 8,000 for the first time in 20 years last fiscal year when COVID-19 moved into Iowa in March 2020, causing the Iowa Board of Parole to accelerate releases as a way to help manage a prison population that was susceptible to the spreading coronavirus.
“The numbers are different these last two years from what we’ve seen historically and COVID was absolutely a component in why some of our numbers are changing. There’s no way around that,” said Corrections Department spokeswoman Sarah Fineran.
“COVID affected nearly every single avenue of the criminal justice system, whether it be criminal case processing to jail admissions to Department of Corrections’ admissions and exits,” Fineran added. “It’s just so difficult to try to pinpoint one precise cause or really even take big take-aways from this information because COVID had such a wide-reaching impact in every single sector of the criminal justice system.”
Delays in court hearings, trials and procedures due to COVID-19 concerns also impacted prison numbers. The 1,207 new court commitments were the lowest since 1,240 offenders were admitted into Iowa’s penal institutions in fiscal 1991, according to department records. That followed 1,614 new commitments in fiscal 2020 — a 25 percent year-to-year decline — as corrections officials continue what they call a “slow and steady” build back up of the overall prison population.
Probation revocations, parole returns and work release returns all experienced declines ranging from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent as total prison admissions last year plunged to 3,529 — the lowest yearly intake since fiscal 1993. Likewise, overall releases of 3,343 were the lowest since fiscal 1993, but more than 3,000 higher than fiscal 2020 as state officials worked to create more space for quarantine areas and prevention measures to address institutional outbreaks.
“Our COVID numbers are far more manageable now,” said Fineran. “We’ve passed our learning curve and now it’s much more manageable than the initial outbreaks that we experienced.”
Parole Board representatives were not available for comment, but data showed a more aggressive approach to identifying lower-risk offenders who would be eligible for parole or work release since the pandemic began in March 2020. Corrections officials noted 1,270 staff members and 1,354 inmates had been fully vaccinated by late spring.
Mindi TenNapel of the Iowa Department of Human Right's criminal and juvenile justice planning division, which tracks prison population trends, said the COVID-19 impacts on correctional institutions forced researchers to revise Iowa’s projections of prison populations downward, The projections had topped 10,000 in future years.
“The long-term forecast predicts the population will increase to 8,485 (12 percent) by the end of fiscal 2030, resulting in overcapacity of 22. 4 percent,” according to a 35-page report authored by TenNapel and two associates. The fiscal 2021 estimate included in the report was off by just one.
TenNapel said prison population numbers likely will increase as offenders bound for prison are transferred from temporary custody in county jails and as court proceedings gradually return to a more normal case docket.
“The overall reduction in the prison population has resulted in the ability for prisons to create space necessary for large quarantine areas should a facility experience an outbreak of COVID-19,” according to the division’s report. “While space creation within prisons is necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, it is important to note that social distancing is challenging in a correctional setting, particularly amongst facilities with shared cells.”
The report’s authors recommended policymakers consider equalizing quantities for illegal drug possession levels and sentencing for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine to address racial incarceration disparities, as well as revisiting special sentences, mandatory minimums and drug offense sentencing that are contributors to the prison population.
As of last week, corrections officials said there were 7,171 males and 586 females incarcerated in Iowa’s prison system. Demographically, 4,971 inmates were white, 1,967 were African American, 557 were Hispanic, 179 American Indian or Alaska Native and 81 Asian or Pacific Islander.
Data through Aug. 13 indicated 6,062 incarcerated individuals had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, with about 71 percent of the total inmate population being held in Iowa prisons fully vaccinated along with about 61 percent of prison staff, according to the department.
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