Iowa prison population highest in 8 years

Recidivism rate still growing, but more slowly

A guard tower is seen in April 2015 at the new Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. (The Gazette)
A guard tower is seen in April 2015 at the new Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — More Iowa offenders being returned to prison for work release or parole violations pushed the inmate population at state penal institutions to the highest count in eight years during fiscal 2019, new Iowa Department of Corrections data shows.

The total number of inmates housed in Iowa’s nine prisons in Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Mitchellville, Oakdale, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Newton and Rockwell City stood at 8,473 when the fiscal year ended June 30, up 54 from the previous year and the most since the count stood at 8,778 in fiscal 2011. The overwhelming majority of inmates are men — only about 9 percent are women.

New commitments for offenders convicted of crimes that sent them to prison grew by 1 percent, while the Iowa Board of Parole tried to ease crowding by granting 2,595 paroles and 1.693 work releases to community-based corrections facilities. Another 947 left the prison system when their sentences expired.

But those releases were offset by double-digit increases in the number of offenders who were returned to prison after violating the terms of their paroles or releases or reoffending while they were under community supervision.

“That’s a part of our priorities that we need to address — why are those people coming in and how do we keep them out as long as they aren’t posing a risk?” asked Beth Skinner, who was appointed director of the Iowa Department of Corrections in June by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Skinner said reducing the recidivism rate among offenders who return to the institutions after being granted release into Iowa communities is a major focus of her administration. “That is a high priority for us right now, because that is something to a certain extent that we can control,” she said.

While the yearly number of inmate returnees jumped, overall Iowa’s rate of recidivism rose by 1 point from 37.8 percent in fiscal 2018 to 38.8 percent last fiscal year — a slower growth rate than in some previous years and lower than other states, Skinner noted.


“I’m hopeful that in the next couple years we’re going to see that trend reverse and we’re going to start seeing it drop in terms of those numbers. Recidivism is going up but it’s slowing,” Skinner said. “To me it’s a positive signal that our efforts are starting to pay off.”

Skinner said her agency is in the process of implementing more evidence-based practices and staff training, along with being more strategic with resources employed for treatment and transition services that include housing plans, jobs and services for mental health and substance abuse with more seamless delivery.

“We’re a star among a lot of the states” when it comes to breaking the cycle of offenders returning to prison, Skinner said, noting some states approach a 50 percent return rate. “But I think that we can always do better. That’s my drumbeat.”

Iowa’s prison count is down significantly from the record of 9,009 inmates held April 9, 2011, in the state’s correctional system that has varying security levels — maximum, medium and minimum. But Iowa’s rate of prison crowding ticked up to 22 percent over capacity. After construction projects lowered the bed count by 372, the system has a design capacity of 6,933 beds, Corrections Department data shows.

Danny Homan, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, said prison crowding and inadequate staffing at Iowa’s prisons remain major safety and security concerns for his members who work in those institutions.

“I don’t believe our staffing numbers have been at an appropriate level for 14 years. Our employees that go to work every day and walk through that turnkey, their lives are at risk because of the staffing levels inside this prison,” the union leader said.

“We do not have security inside our prisons and we don’t have the appropriate number of staff and anybody who wants to challenge me on that — bring it on, because I have the correctional officers that are telling me this that they are fearful for their lives when they walk into work.”

Corrections Department data showed 81 assaults were reported in fiscal 2019, which was down slightly. However, Homan said would need to see what the agency defines as constituting an assault.


Outside of the institutions and on the community corrections side, Skinner said her agency is looking at a staffing redesign using a national model to assess risk in developing supervisor-to-offender ratios.

But Homan expressed concern that supervision has been lax and classifications set artificially low in sending offenders out the prison doors.

“I am not an advocate for releasing people just to lower prison numbers because then we’re putting people on the street that don’t deserve to be there and putting the public at risk. People were convicted of a crime; they should do their time and when their time is up they should be released,” the AFSCME leader said. “People are coming back because we’re releasing these people before they’re ready or we’re not supervising them adequately in the communities.”

Corrections data for fiscal 2019 also shows Iowa continues to have a racial imbalance within its prison system.

Although less than 4 percent of Iowa’s population is African-American, 25.4 percent, or 2,148, of the state’s prison inmates are black.

On the other hand, whites make up 90.6 percent of Iowa’s overall population but only nearly 66 percent, or 5,551, of the prison inmates.

“Iowa’s racial disparity is still high, but it is no longer at the top,” said Nicole Porter of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, which tracks incarceration trends and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Porter said Iowa still ranks in the top worst 10 states for racial disparity, but has enacted some judicial and legislative “interventions” in sentencing and other areas.


But efforts to address racial profiling by law enforcement have stalled in recent sessions of the Iowa Legislature.

“Obviously, there’s much more that can be done,” Porter said, most notably in addressing points of discretion along the criminal-justice system that disadvantage African American at points of arrest, sentencing and post-incarceration practices.

“I think it is hard for states to reduce their racial disparity unless there is an overall comprehensive effort to address admissions to prison, length of stay and criminal justice practices that have contributed to significant rises in the prison population,” Porter added.

Skinner said each judicial district in Iowa is tasked with recruiting a more-diverse workforce, training staff on implicit biases and developing a “dashboard” of measures for unemployment, re-entry outcomes, discipline, revocations and other metrics built across sex, age and race to use as an action plan in addressing disparities.

“My hope is we’re going to see that shift over the next few years,” she said. “It really has to be a systemwide effort.”

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