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Union calls for Iowa prisons to stop admissions amid COVID-19 outbreaks

(KWWL) -- Iowa's prison system continues to battle COVID-19 and some are calling for stricter measures to stop the spread.

"I have been begging and literally begging for weeks with the director of corrections to shut corrections down," said Danny Homan, the president for AFSCME Council 61.

Homan was joined during an afternoon news conference Monday by two state legislators, State Rep. Wes Breckenridge and State Senator Rich Taylor. 

Department data shows cases total 214 as of Monday evening. For some institutions, like Anamosa State Penitentiary, a large percentage of their populations tested positive. For Anamosa, a prison of about 950 inmates according to state data, 819 inmates have tested positive.

A Friday article by Iowa Public Radio saw several inmates' loved ones express concerns, fearing that staff could bring in the virus if they don't follow safety guidelines outside of work.

Homan says he's concerned about inmates health but his office is charged with protecting the correctional officers on the front line. Homan fears staff are contracting the virus at work, calling the prison a "petri dish."

In response to the call for halting admissions, corrections officials say it would have a trickle down effect on the state's criminal justice system.

"What we do in the prisons has an impact on jail populations across the state, and an impact on public safety in general," wrote Cord Overton, the Iowa DOC Communications Director.

"Many Iowa jails are not designed to handle large populations of inmates for an extended period of time. When our admissions are closed, we are essentially shifting the burden onto Iowa's county jails, many of which are also trying to keep their populations as low as possible due to the pandemic. "

Cord Overton, Iowa Dept. of Corrections

Homan and others said they didn't have a solution to that but say change is in desperate need. The union president was clear in that he didn't think the DOC's plan was being followed consistently.

Inmates are quarantined for 14 days, according to the official plan, and tested multiple times before being transferred into a prison's general population. Homan countered this, saying that some places were quarantined for 7 days at one place and then 7 at another.

Overton confirmed that guidance was the same across the system, but acknowledged that each institution could adjust for their individual design and situation.

For inmates, a policy is in place requiring them to wear a mask, but Homan says that's not consistent either.

"And I myself have witnessed inmates out working in the outs program, and not having masks on or out in the yard and not having masks on," Homan said.

The legislators, as well as Homan, all suggested that they believed Director Beth Skinner's heart was in the right place but outside political pressure played a role in what's being done within Iowa's prisons.

The department shares video updates almost every Friday.

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Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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