CORONAVIRUS

Coralville prison warden retires amid coronavirus investigation

Leadership had concerns protocols were not being followed

The Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. (The Gazette)
The Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. (The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — The Iowa Medical and Classification Center warden abruptly turned in his retirement notice last month after higher ups began investigating concerns that COVID-19 guidelines were not being followed at the prison, records show.

James McKinney, who has been in Iowa Corrections for 27 years and at the Coralville prison since 2015, sent an email about his retirement at 11:58 a.m. May 8 to state Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner, public records obtained by The Gazette show. The one-sentence notice stated he was retiring that day.

Nearly two hours before McKinney provided that notice, Skinner sent an email to IMCC staff saying she had made some “temporary changes.” She announced Randy Gibbs, warden of Iowa State Penitentiary, would “effective immediately” be interim warden of the Coralville prison.

“This facility deserves strong and steady leadership,” she wrote. “A number of decisions have been made over the past several months that have resulted in my ordering an investigation into these issues.

“I’m looking for facts. If after a thorough understanding of the facts a change needs to be made, it will be. I owe all of you that much.”

She didn’t mention McKinney or his retirement in the email.

The Coralville facility is the admissions center for all defendants across Iowa convicted and sentenced to time in state prisons. So following coronavirus guidelines would be a priority to prevent any outbreaks in the other eight prisons.

At this point, the center is the only Iowa prison to report COVID-19 cases among inmates.

McKinney didn’t respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

There are between 400 and 500 inmates moving through the center each month who then are sent to other prisons, according to the center.

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IMCC is a medium-security prison and also has the only licensed forensic psychiatric hospital in state.

An initial statement May 29 from the department to The Gazette indicated an internal “review” had started that month when a reporter asked if McKinney was under investigation for not following the coronavirus guidelines.

“The leadership of this department expects all of our team members to be doing everything within reason to mitigate COVID-19 in our prison system, and will hold ourselves accountable when we have reason to believe otherwise,” according to the statement. “In early May, department leadership had concerns regarding the adherence to department guidelines related to COVID-19, and began a thorough review of these concerns at IMCC.”

McKinney gave notice soon after department leadership told him “these matters were being reviewed,” according to the statement.

The Gazette, in a records request, asked for more details about those “adherence” concerns and also if the staff had filed any complaints.

Cord Overton, the department’s spokesman, said communications of leadership are considered confidential under the Iowa Code section that covers internal records from the correctional system.

He also noted the department has documents available to the public on its preparations and response to the pandemic.

McKinney worked for the Corrections Department almost three decades. He started as deputy department director in 1993 and held that position until 1997.

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He then was appointed warden of the North Center Correctional Facility in Rockwell City and remained there until 2010.

After that, he was selected as warden for the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and remained in that position until appointed in 2015 to IMCC.

His salary was $150,705 for fiscal 2019, according to state salary records.

McKinney also has been a consultant with the National Institute of Corrections since 2011, a member of the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Higher Education in Prison Advisory Council and facilitator of the Liberal Arts Behind Bars program.

As part of the national institute, he developed Leader Dog for the Blind, which helped inmates raise puppies to become seeing-eye dogs.

IMCC had stopped accepting admissions April 20 from jails to help prevent the spread of coronavirus in the prisons, but the admissions center resumed taking inmates last week “after carefully developing a process” to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

According to the department, IMCC has had 22 inmates and two staff test positive. In all the other state facilities, seven staff members have tested positive.

Overton said the department has worked with every jail in the state to ensure inmates coming into IMCC or the Iowa Corrections Institution for Women have a COVID-19 test administered, and the results sent to the admissions staff before they arrive.

Once inmates arrive at IMCC from a jail, they are held in a 14-day quarantine and tested twice at the end of the quarantine, Overton said.

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If any of the inmates starts to show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 during their quarantine, they will be medically isolated, and every inmate in the unit will be considered exposed and remain under quarantine and tested.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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