CORONAVIRUS

Iowa prisons expand use of N95 masks as COVID-19 cases mount

AFSCME leader, lawmaker say Corrections Department pressured to take county jail inmates

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, speaks Feb. 16. 2017, to supporters of collective bargaining in Des Mo
Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, speaks Feb. 16. 2017, to supporters of collective bargaining in Des Moines following a vote in the Iowa Legislature on a bill limiting public-sector unions like his. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The Iowa Corrections Department soon will provide N95 masks to more prison staff to better protect them from COVID-19, which has infected more than 3,100 offenders and 478 staff.

Corrections Department Director Beth Skinner last week told AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan about the decision, saying officers at the Newton Correctional Facility would be the first to get them and would be fitted starting Dec. 1, Homan said Monday.

“We have been begging the department to get N95s,” Homan said in a virtual news conference. “They said, ‘Wear two of these (paper surgical masks). Wear a plastic shield.’ Now that we’ve had a correctional officer die of COVID-19, now we are going to be getting N95s.”

An officer at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women at Mitchellville died Nov. 20 — becoming the first staff death from COVID-19. Nine offenders also have died from the virus. The latest was announced late Monday — Timothy Christopher Bryant, 59, who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Corrections Department spokesman Cord Overton said Monday the department long has required N95 use for all staff with close contact with offenders who have tested positive or are presumed positive. The agency now will provide N95s to anyone working in COVID-positive units.

“Within the last month, as supplies of N95s have been more available, we have distributed more than 14,000 N95s to our facilities,” Overton said. “There will be some implementation time required to ensure that staff using a respirator are fit tested to remain OSHA compliant as an employer, but we expect this to happen very quickly.”

Homan and Democratic lawmakers who joined him for the news conference called on the Corrections Department to

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stop accepting offender transfers from Iowa’s county jails and stop moving offenders around within the prison system.

State Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Union, said he’s talked with Skinner and believes she is getting pressure from Gov. Kim Reynolds’s office to keep accepting jail offenders.

“I believe the director is trying to do the right things, but pressure from on top, and I mean the governor’s office, is keeping them from doing what they need to do,” Taylor said.

However, Overton said it “simply isn’t true” Reynolds’ office has pressured the department. But the agency has continued to accept offenders from county jails amid recent outbreaks.

“Many Iowa jails are not designed to handle large populations of inmates for an extended period of time,” he said. “When our admissions are closed, we are essentially shifting the burden onto Iowa’s county jails,” he said, many of which also are trying to keep their populations low during the pandemic.

Homan knows some prison staff may be getting the virus outside the prison, but he thinks the risks of prison transmission are high because offenders don’t always wear masks and there isn’t enough space for social distancing in crowded facilities.

With so many prison staff sick or quarantining, remaining staff often are forced to work double shifts, he said.

Overton acknowledged last week there have been staffing challenges.

“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.

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

When 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 — Overton said.

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

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