DES MOINES — A bipartisan group of state senators voted Thursday to confirm Beth Skinner as Gov. Kim Reynolds’ choice as director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, but not without some pushback about safety concerns for officers at the state’s prisons.
Thirty Republicans and 15 Democrats voted to approve the governor’s appointment of Skinner as the second woman to guide the state’s prison and corrections operations. Three Democrats opposed the nomination.
A two-thirds majority, or 34 votes, of the 50-member Iowa Senate is needed to confirm a gubernatorial nominee.
Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, one of the dissenters, expressed concerns over the safety of correctional officers in the wake of four assaults over the past month involving closed-fist attacks on staffers by inmates at prisons in Anamosa, Clarinda and Coralville.
He said the assaults point to a lack of adequate staffing at Iowa’s correctional facilities.
“We have to get back to a very serious conversation in this chamber about how we protect those who are standing guard,” Boulton told his Senate colleagues during Thursday’s confirmation process. “The reality is that correctional facilities can be very dangerous places. We don’t need to make them more dangerous with staffing issues.”
Even more disconcerting, Boulton said, was that an inmate had to come to the aid of the officer being attacked at the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville.
He said that was further evidence that staffing numbers are not adequate under the Reynolds’ administration; that staff members are working longer hours with less support; and that there has been “slow to little reaction to these needs.”
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However, Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said the onus is on state budget-makers to address staffing needs. He noted that Skinner has worked her way up through the agency to the directorship and is someone who understands the needs of staff and inmates.
“What you’re describing is terrible and sad,” Zaun told Boulton, but he called it a good decision on Reynolds’ part to choose a director who advocates for employees because “she’s one of them.”
“I have full faith in her nomination,” Zaun said.
Skinner heads a system with about 8,500 inmates in nine prisons and 38,000 in community-based facilities. Her annual salary is $154,300.
Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, a former longtime corrections employee, said he spoke with Skinner about her goals and thinks she “has some very honorable intentions” to create a different direction for the state’s corrections agency.
“She wants to move the department forward,” Taylor said. “She’s not like some of the last directors that we’ve had that are afraid to say, ‘I need more help,’ and she’s done that. She’s told us that she does need more help.”
Before her appointment, Skinner, 48, served as the department’s director of risk reduction. She provided oversight to the department’s recidivism reduction initiative, its research division, the training department and the department’s quality improvement initiative.
Skinner succeeds Dan Craig, who was interim corrections director from December 2018 until his retirement last June. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees in social work from the University of Iowa.
New student regent
Also Thursday, senators voted 48-0 to confirm Zack Leist as the student member of the state Board of Regents.
Leist, of Clarion, is a junior at Iowa State University. He replaces Rachael Johnson, a University of Northern Iowa student who resigned from the board last March after graduating.
Leist’s term will expire April 30, 2021.
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State code requires the Board of Regents, which governs Iowa’s three public universities and two special schools, to include eight at-large members and one student regent who is enrolled full time at one of the three state universities as either an undergraduate or graduate student.
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