116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne has asked the U.S. Departments of Labor and Justice to investigate the March 23 fatal attack at the Anamosa State Penitentiary and OSHA violations within the state prison system.
“This terrible tragedy should never have happened, and we believe, unfortunately, this incident was completely preventable,” states the Tuesday letter signed by Axne, Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City and Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville.
Two prison inmates, Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard, are accused of bludgeoning to death correctional Officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte in a failed escape attempt March 23. The men also took another employee hostage briefly and seriously injured another inmate by striking him in the head with prison-issued hammers, investigators said.
The Democrats say in their letter that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and her administration has “disregarded and dismissed several warning signs,” including Iowa’s prison system being as much as 10 percent over capacity and up to 9 percent under authorized staffing levels. The lawmakers say offender assaults on prison staff have increased since 2019.
The Gazette has reported a dozen other assaults of prison staff by offenders in the year leading up to the attack.
The lawmakers allege in the letter Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature have cut $10 million from the Corrections budget in recent years “making it difficult to maintain balanced staff-inmate ratios.” A 2017 law also removed the ability of most public employees to bargain for safer working conditions as part of contract negotiations.
The letter points out Iowa OSHA violations at the prisons have not yet been addressed. The workplace safety organization last year proposed penalties of about $20,000 against the Corrections Department for violations at the Anamosa prison, The Gazette has reported.
The Anamosa prison didn’t have reliable radios that staff could use to summon help in a violent attack and failed to follow its own emergency response plan, the citations stated.
Iowa OSHA also proposed $9,472 in penalties for the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, near Coralville, for similar problems with radio communications.
The Corrections Department is contesting the citations and there are hearings scheduled in July and August, department spokesman Cord Overton said earlier this month.
Reynolds announced April 7 she would bring in an “outside team” to do an investigation of what led to the March 23 fatal attack. Prison officials from South Dakota and Minnesota were called in for this review, the Des Moines Register reported. AFSCME Council 61, the union that represents many state corrections workers, said the review isn’t independent because the report will go to Corrections Director Beth Skinner rather than lawmakers.
Skinner since has reassigned Anamosa Warden Jeremy Larson, made other staffing changes and created a new position of director of prison security.
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