Iowa’s prison population has increased for the second straight year, but administrators of the state’s crowded correctional system say the rise could have been worse.
Though the system is filled 15 percent over design capacity, officials say efforts to control the inmate count has slowed growth considerably below forecasts and increases seen elsewhere.
There were just 47 more prisoners who entered the institutions than left them in fiscal 2018.
”Overall, I think we’re doing all the right stuff,” said Jerry Bartruff, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections.
The department oversees nine prisons with varying security levels — maximum, medium and minimum. As of the end of the 2018 fiscal year on June 30, there were 8,419 male and female inmates between the Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Mitchellville, Oakdale, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Newton and Rockwell City facilities.
Iowa’s prison population has increased four of the last five fiscal years, dating to fiscal 2013 when the inmate count was 8,074. The most recent report shows the institutions were housing 1,114 offenders above their overall design capacity.
“We’re concerned about any increase in the population because we’d like to see our numbers smaller, but if you look at what’s happened over time, I don’t think that’s as dramatic of an increase as what we’ve seen in other states and not nearly as dramatic as what the prison population forecast indicates,” said Bartruff.
He noted the most recent projections from the state Department of Human Right’s criminal and juvenile justice planning division — which tracks prison population trends — projected a count of 8,611 by fiscal 2018. It forecasts more increases over a decade, reaching 10,396 inmates by 2027.
Bartruff noted that the crowding figures were skewed somewhat when state budget cuts forced his agency to take cost-cutting measures that closed about 400 minimum-security beds, which now are likely are gone for good.
The prison system admitted 5,990 offenders during the fiscal year. Of those, 1,886 were from criminals convicted and sentenced for felony offenses. Another 3,103 inmates were returned for parole or work release violations and probation revocations, the department reported.
“We have tried to make sure that we do everything we can to reduce the number of people who come back to prison so that we can control the population,” Bartruff said.
Corrections officials said multiple factors can impact population trends. For example, they said, the department consistently saw more admissions than releases, except for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which can have a cumulative effect. Other factors are sentencing practices, length of sentence, revocations to prison and parole board decisions, department officials said.
The Iowa Board of Parole, in conjunction with corrections department analysts, paroled 2,235 inmates in fiscal 2018 — a 6.9 percent increase. But they granted work releases to 1,527 inmates, a 2.3 percent decrease.
Iowa’s prison count is down significantly from the record of 9,009 inmates held in the state’s correctional system April 9, 2011. Prison crowding grew to 122 percent of design capacity that fiscal year.
Danny Homan, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, said the numbers don’t tell the full story.
He said he has concerns, under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration, about staffing levels at the institutions and oversight policies for inmates released to residential facilities.
“Staffing numbers in every institution in the state of Iowa, that would include corrections and (Department of Human Services), are shameful,” he said in an interview. “We’re operating short-staffed constantly and employees’ lives are in jeopardy.”
He said there have been instances were correctional officers have been attacked on the job and situations where offenders who committed serious crimes have walked away from halfway houses.
Homan pointed to a situation earlier this month where a man imprisoned two decades ago for his role in a Des Moines gunbattle that led to the death of an innocent bystander escaped from a work release program.
Vincent Cortez Brown, who was convicted of second-degree murder, was driving one of two vehicles involved in a shootout in April 1996 that killed Phyllis Davis as she was driving home.
Prison officials issued a statement Sept. 9 saying Brown “was not present during a head count” at the Fort Des Moines Work Release Center. He returned hours later.
“We’re putting really bad dudes and really bad gals into our community halfway houses,” he said. “ ... And those people then walk away exposing the public to danger.”
Bartruff said the state has done an analysis at each prison to identify the number of officers and staff needed.
“We’re at a pretty good point of being able to say that the numbers that we have are matching the numbers that we need,” he said.