CORONAVIRUS

Iowa prison crowding raises stakes on COVID-19 transmission

But county jails in Eastern Iowa reducing their inmate populations

The Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids, pictured Wednesday, has reduced its inmate population, furlough som
The Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids, pictured Wednesday, has reduced its inmate population, furlough some inmates and delaying the reporting date for others. “The only people leaving the jail and coming back are the employees,” Sheriff Brian Gardner said. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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While Eastern Iowa jails have cut their inmate populations by nearly 30 percent in recent weeks, Iowa’s prisons still are more than 20 percent over capacity — leaving prisoners strikingly susceptible to the highly-contagious coronavirus if it were to start spreading inside.

“Because social distancing is all but impossible in prisons and jails, particularly overcrowded ones, people in jail are certainly more vulnerable to COVID-19 than people not behind bars,” said Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group based in Massachusetts. “We’re recommending that jails and prisons lower their populations to prevent a human tragedy.”

The American Civil Liberties Union says governors should commute the prison term of any at-risk inmate whose sentence would end in the next two years, anyone whose sentence is less than a year and anyone being held on a technical supervision violation.

California is poised to release 3,500 non-violent offenders from state prisons, focusing on people with 60 days or fewer to serve, the Hill reported. Utah cut loose 80 people and is being pressured to release more. North Carolina officials are considering letting some inmates go after one prison staff member tested positive for COVID-19, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

That’s not happening in Iowa. In fact, the Iowa prison population has grown slightly since February, with 8,494 inmates housed in nine prison facilities across the state as of Friday, compared with 8,480 on Feb. 13. The prison system is nearly 23 percent over capacity, with several prisons holding hundreds of extra inmates than they were designed for.

Inmates at more risk

So far, no state prison inmates or staff have tested positive for COVID-19. The state system had done 18 inmate tests through Friday, spokesman Cord Overton said. But incarcerated populations are at greater risk of getting the virus not just because of the close quarters, but because they have higher rates of tuberculosis, tobacco use disorders and asthma.

The Iowa Department of Corrections is moving forward with some parts of its pandemic response plan, such as reducing areas where inmates can congregate, prohibiting visitors and monitoring the health of staff, Overton said, but it’s only so effective if inmates are crowded together.

“With the prisons sitting at around 20 percent over their design capacity, it will make our efforts more challenging should we have an outbreak at a facility,” he said. “We have been trying to work as swiftly as possible with the Iowa Board of Parole, which has the authority to release those that would likely succeed in the community setting.”

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The board released a statement Friday saying its members and corrections officials have “identified logical targets relative to expedited release options in light of this current COVID-19 reality.”

But the statement doesn’t say which groups — such as the elderly, those with chronic lung conditions or those nearing the end of their sentences — would be released or when an expedited release would happen. Among factors to consider would be where these released inmates would go, and if there is a support network for them outside prison.

“The Board is working in a systematic fashion to review persons for potential release that meet the Board’s concomitant goals of promoting release in a manner that honors the rehabilitation of a given person in the system while simultaneously attempting to ensure, as best we can, the safety of the community as a whole.” the statement said.

Meanwhile, prison inmates in Anamosa, Fort Dodge and Mitchellville are making hospital gowns, masks and face shields to protect Iowa health care workers and emergency responders.

As employees with Iowa Prison Industries, inmates are paid between $1 and $1.25 an hour for their work.

Jails trim numbers

Iowa’s county jails have had more success reducing their populations in recent weeks.

A Gazette survey of nine Eastern Iowa county jails showed the total number of people being held on March 26 was 46 percent below the jails’ cumulative capacities, and all the jails had cut their populations since the first week in March.

“We have furloughed those inmates that have been sentenced to serve time and those inmates on the work release program and are not accepting any defendants to serve time until May 4,” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner wrote last week. “The only people leaving the jail and coming back are the employees.”

Linn County, which has a capacity of 401, was down to 278 on March 26 from 339 on March 3.

Johnson County, which can hold 92 inmates and frequently is so full it must house inmates in other counties, had only 30 inmates in the Iowa City jail on March 26, with 10 inmates housed elsewhere, Capt. John Good said.

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“We haven’t really changed our practices on when we release our inmates,” Good said. “We still need court orders or bond/conditions of release to be met in order for someone in custody to be released.”

But the county has been working with 6th Judicial District Court judges to allow arresting officers to cite and release people for lower-level offenses rather than taking them to the jail, Good said.

Johnson County judges also have waived bail for some people who have been arrested, allowed some inmates to go home with orders to come back later and discharged a few inmates who were close to completing their full sentence, District Associate Judge Deb Minot said.

Court officials also postponed the reporting dates for 225 inmates scheduled to come in and serve time in the Johnson County Jail, she said.

Protecting inmates

Cedar County, whose jail can hold 47 people, was down to just seven inmates March 26 and those people are awaiting trial for violent offenses, including sexual assault, said Jail Administrator Bode Koranda.

Although Cedar County regularly houses inmates from other counties, officials have turned down recent requests in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 at the jail.

“It’s just better to keep what we have right now safe and not sick,” Koranda said. “If it gets into our jail it will be bad.”

Jail staff are trying to put distance between inmates, keeping them in their own cells if possible, and not letting new inmates mix with people who have been there for several months.

Before booking someone into the Linn County Correctional Center, staff take the person’s temperature and ask several health questions before the person even is let out of the squad car, Gardner said.

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Jail staffs across Eastern Iowa must report to their supervisors if they are feeling sick and several jails take employees’ temperatures before they are allowed to start work. Staff in the Delaware County Jail wear gloves and face masks when working with inmates and have upped an already rigorous cleaning schedule, Jail Officer Paul Glaza said.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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