CORONAVIRUS

First Iowa prison correctional officer dies from COVID-19

When staffing levels 'not ideal' because of virus, Corrections Department calls on temps, other backup plans

The administration building, pictured Sept. 15, 2015, stands out at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. So far this month, t
The administration building, pictured Sept. 15, 2015, stands out at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. So far this month, three prisoners from the facility have died from COVID-19 related complications. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Eight prisoners so far — and the first prison staff member this week — have died of COVID-19 as outbreaks continue at Iowa prison facilities.

“It’s a mess,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, the union that represents state correctional workers among others. “The straw that broke the camel’s back is what happened with the passing of a correctional officer.”

An officer at the Iowa Correctional Institution at Mitchellville died Monday, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections COVID-19 website. This is the first state Corrections staff death from the virus. No other details were available about the officer.

Overall, 442 Iowa prison staff have tested positive for COVID-19, with about three-quarters having recovered as of late Thursday. Of the 104 staff who still are sick, 37 are from the Anamosa State Penitentiary, which has been dealing with a major outbreak since early November.

In cases where it’s likely an employee contracted the virus at work, the state allows the employee to use paid administrative leave as opposed to sick or vacation leave, said Corrections Department spokesman Cord Overton.

Maintaining adequate prison staffing has been a challenge during outbreaks, he said.

“As the virus impacts some prison’s overall staffing levels, facilities may exercise pre-developed staffing plans to ensure safety of the institution can be maintained even when staffing levels are not ideal,” he said.

In some cases, the Corrections Department has used temporary staffing companies to supplement regular medical staff, Overton said.

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Overall, 3,025 Iowa prison offenders have tested positive for COVID-19, with 536 of those people still positive and 2,489 recovered, the state reported late Thursday. The total number is about 40 percent of the total state prison system population of 7,431.

Anamosa had 235 COVID-19-positive offenders late Thursday. This is about one-quarter of the total population of 968. The prison had 37 staff infected with the disease, the state reported.

Three Anamosa offenders have died this month of COVID-19 related illnesses.

David Allen Streets, 70, died Nov. 8, Jonathan William Strain, 59, died Monday and Robert William Sirovy, 64, died Tuesday. All men died at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where they had been transferred after their symptoms worsened.

Citing security reasons, Overton would not say how many offenders from Anamosa or overall in the system are being treated at hospitals.

“I will tell you that over the last several weeks, the department has typically had between five to 15 inmates receiving hospital care at a given time,” he said.

The department has reduced offender transfers in and out of the prisons to prevent new introductions of the virus, Overton said.

But Sue McTaggart said her son, who was an offender at the Anamosa prison, was transferred to the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility earlier this summer to keep the kitchen running, according to a report by Iowa Public Radio.

Two dozen more men were transferred from Mount Pleasant to Anamosa this month to help with kitchen work during the outbreak, IPR reported.

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Homan said he’s been hearing from prison staff about their concerns about the outbreaks in their facilities.

“In our opinion, management within the DOC is doing little to nothing constructive to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside our facilities,” he said.

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

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