CORONAVIRUS

Iowa jails and prisons preparing for spread of coronavirus

ACLU calls for drastic reduction of incarcerated population

The Linn County Correctional Center and Linn County Courthouse on May's Island as seen from the Alliant Energy Tower in
The Linn County Correctional Center and Linn County Courthouse on May’s Island as seen from the Alliant Energy Tower in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. (The Gazette)

Iowa’s most secure facilities are designed to keep inmates and prisoners locked up — but suddenly they also are struggling to keep the coronavirus locked out.

Officials report they are banning visitors, screening new arrivals and even refusing to incarcerate some suspected of minor crimes.

But advocates question whether enough is being done to protect those who can’t work from home — either because they were forcibly taken to jail or because they’re part of the staff that runs the facilities.

“The safety of our staff and those under our supervision is paramount to this department,” said Cord Overton, communications director for the Iowa Department of Corrections. “The department has a robust policy and plan in place related to pandemic viruses. We are currently implementing several components of our plan preemptively in order to prepare for the possibility of a case in the prison environment, and customizing this policy for the COVID-19 virus.”

The Corrections Department has suspended all visitations at state correctional facilities, as well as any volunteer activities, and implemented a screening process for inmates — and staff — entering the facilities,

Many local jailers said they are implementing similar protocols.

In Linn County, Sheriff Brian Gardner said all those arrested and headed to jail are screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before they are locked up. Any who show symptoms will likely go to the hospital.

Additionally, Gardner said, the jail will not admit defendants arrested on failure to appear in court violations and are delaying those who have scheduled to serve time until after May 4.

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Gardner said his officers have also been granted permission to issue promise-to-appear citations for those arrested on serious misdemeanor charges — except for domestic abuse and operating while under the influence — instead of locking them up.

The jail has also suspended guest visitation, implemented no-contact meetings for defendants and their attorneys, restricted volunteer groups from entering the jail and installed a kiosk in the jail lobby where money can be deposited for an inmate’s commissary or phone account.

Similarly, in Johnson County, Det. Sgt. Brad Kunkel said the jail is discontinuing visitation, conducting regular cleaning, asking inmates and staff to practice basic infection control. The facility also switched to online deposits for inmate accounts.

Kunkel said the Johnson County Jail is designed to hold 92 inmates, but its population is half that now.

Both the Linn and Johnson facilities said they are equipped to isolate individuals should an inmate test positive for the virus. If such an inmate becomes seriously ill, jailers would transport that person to the hospital. New intakes are also being kept separately from the general population.

Smaller county jails, like the one in Iowa County, are also implementing precautions.

Iowa County Jail Administrator Jeff Krotz said the 44-bed facility is implementing screening protocols for new inmates and staff as well as stopping visitor and volunteer entries. The facility is also began additional cleaning.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, however, said extra cleaning and screening of incoming inmates will not prove sufficient.

“It’s not just the people who are behind bars who are at risk,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director for the ACLU of Iowa. “It’s everybody in the court system, everybody who works in prisons in jails, which is a tremendous number. And if we do nothing, our counties, our jails, and our prisons will have this disease just rip through them.”

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Iowa state prisons currently are about 25 percent over capacity, Fowler said. There are about 16,000 people incarcerated in Iowa. More than half those are in state prisons.

Fowler said the ACLU is calling on state and county officials to take drastic action including limiting the number of people being arrested, dismissing minor cases and diverting more to programs instead of jail.

The ACLU also is calling on Gov. Kim Reynolds to commute the sentences for anyone whose sentence would end in one year anyway, and the sentences of those whose would be released in the next two years who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

Lee Hermiston of The Gazette contributed.

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