CORONAVIRUS

Iowa parole board releases fewer offenders in fiscal 2020, despite COVID-19

Board holds more hearings, second-chance reviews, but only wants to release offenders with good chance of success outside prison

Inmates enrolled in the Iowa Prison Industries Apparel Production Program at the Fort Dodge Correctional Center in Fort
Inmates enrolled in the Iowa Prison Industries Apparel Production Program at the Fort Dodge Correctional Center in Fort Dodge make hospital gowns and masks. The protective gear will be used by the Iowa Department of Corrections, Human Services, Veterans Home and sent to the stockpile used by hospitals and first responders across the state. (Iowa Department of Corrections)
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Sharna Williams was almost relieved in December when her husband, Larry, tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s because Larry Williams is incarcerated at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, where offenders who hadn’t contracted the virus were kept in their cells 22 hours a day — only let out to shower and call family.

But offenders who tested positive for the virus and successfully completed quarantine were allowed to be out of their cells most of the day and for two hours in the evening, said Sharna Williams, 48, of Huntsville, Ala.

“He finally tested positive,” she said. “Fortunately he didn’t have that bad of a reaction because he’s a very healthy person. I think pretty much everybody has had it.”

COVID-19 outbreaks have hit nearly all of Iowa’s nine prison facilities in the past year, with 4,425 offenders and 676 staff contracting the virus as of Friday.

Eighteen inmates and two staff have died.

Despite the goal of reducing prison populations during the pandemic, Iowa released fewer inmates in fiscal 2020 than in the previous fiscal year.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a national offender advocacy group, published a report Wednesday that criticized Iowa as one of eight states among 13 studied that in 2020 had the same or lower parole grant rates than the previous year.

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“Denying people parole during a pandemic only serves to further the spread of the virus both inside and outside of prisons,” the group said.

Double-panel approach

The Iowa Board of Parole paroled 4,724 people in fiscal 2020, granted work release to another 1,462 and released another 545 sex offenders to a special sentence of supervision outside of prison, according to data provided by the board.

If you include all those categories, the board released 55 percent of people for which they made parole decisions.

This was down from 60 percent — including 4,527 people paroled — in fiscal 2019.

Because Iowa tracks data by fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30, these numbers don’t reflect changes the Parole Board made to its practices after July 1. The group formed two boards to review applications faster and increased the number of parole hearings, said Andrew Boettger, parole board vice chairman.

“In the wake of COVID, we employed this double-panel approach so we would have two three-member panels sitting to review individuals,” Boettger said. “We did that for a number of months to try and push forward movement and try to ensure we don’t have more people incarcerated than needed to be.”

Last summer, Boettger asked every Iowa prison to provide the board with a list of offenders previously recommended, but not approved, for release.

“We did a fresh review of each of those offenders,” he said.

Through these measures and others — including halting admissions from county jails twice — the Iowa Department of Correction has been able to keep its population below 8,000, which, before COVID, hadn’t happened for 20 years.

The prison system still is about 8 percent over the capacity of 6,933 offenders.

Boettger wants many of the changes they put in place to continue.

But he said the board only wants to release people it believes have a reasonable chance of success outside prison. And the side effect of COVID-19 restrictions in the system is some offenders can’t get the programming they need to move toward release.

Sharna Williams is counting down the months until her husband can apply for parole. He is about three years away from having served the required 70 percent of his 25-year sentence for armed robbery. While in prison, Larry Williams has served as a mentor, trained a service dog and attended college classes, his wife said.

“He is a model inmate and has been for the past 12-plus years,” she said.

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It’s also been nearly a year since Williams has held her husband’s hand. The Corrections Department cut off prison visits in early March 2020 because of COVID-19.

The system provides each offender two free video calls per week, which Williams appreciates, but the physical visits with family help keep offenders connected to the support system they will need on release.

“There’s been a lot of misbehavior across the prison, even people in the honor unit,” Williams said.

“It’s just the stress of COVID. It’s really taken a toll on everybody up there.”

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

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