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Iowa lawmakers debate prison staffing, funding levels
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Iowa lawmakers debate prison staffing, funding levels

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The Iowa State Capitol building.

DES MOINES — The death of two state prison workers and funding for the state’s prison system were the focal point of heated partisan political debate Tuesday at the Iowa Capitol.

During competing press conferences outside the Capitol, Democrats and union leaders called for more state funding for the state’s prison system and accused Republicans of neglecting prison workers, while a Republican legislative leader highlighted his party’s proposed prison funding boost and accused Democrats of betraying law enforcement officials.

According to the state: Two workers at the state prison in Anamosa, officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte, were killed during an attack by an inmate on March 23. A third worker, Lorie Matthes, was taken hostage during the attack, and another inmate was seriously wounded while trying to assist the other victims.

During the first press conference Tuesday, a top state union leader called for state lawmakers to increase funding so prisons can hire dozens if not hundreds more workers, boost funding for equipment upgrades and worker training programs in the prison system, allow public workers to collectively bargain for safety and health issues (those bargaining elements were removed by a new law passed by statehouse Republicans), and fund an independent investigation into the March 23 attack.

“Let me be clear: I believe grossly inadequate staffing inside the Department of Corrections led to the deaths of Robert and Lorena. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents roughly 20,000 public workers in Iowa. “There’s only one way we can fix this, and that’s to hire the appropriate number of staff that we need at Anamosa and at every correctional institution in this state.”

There are 23 vacant positions in Anamosa according to state officials, but Homan argued Tuesday that number is tenfold higher because the state stops counting positions after they are left unfilled for more than a year.

According to an AFSCME report using state data, despite having almost identical state prison populations in 2009 and 2019, there were 1,594 paid full-time correctional officers in 2009 and 1,371 --- 223 fewer --- in 2019.

Homan also called for the termination of former Anamosa warden Jeremy Larson --- who has been reassigned as interim warden at the Newton facility, a state corrections spokesperson confirmed Tuesday --- as well as Anamosa’s deputy warden and security director.

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Homan accused the state corrections department of playing “whack-a-doodle” by moving the former Anamosa warden to Newton.

“Those three individuals have violated the sacred trust that every correctional officer has, and that’s having their buddy’s back. They didn’t have anybody’s back. It’s their fault this happened --- that and short staffing,” Homan said.

Iowa Rep. Todd Prichard, the leader of the minority House Democrats from Charles City, called the deaths in Anamosa “preventable” and “predictable” due to years of what he called underfunding the state prison system.

Moments later, Iowa Rep. Pat Grassley, the Republican House Speaker from New Hartford, held a press conference to respond to some of the criticisms leveled by Homan and Democrats.

Grassley highlighted House Republicans’ proposal to boost the state corrections budget by $20 million, which he said was in the works before the deadly attack in Anamosa, and criticized Democrats who voted against the proposal earlier Tuesday.

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“Public safety: largest increase in over 10 years. Department of corrections: largest increase in 10 years. Fully funded the courts’ request,” Grassley said.

The proposal needs to also be approved by majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate --- who previously proposed a $4 million increase for the corrections budget --- and Gov. Kim Reynolds.

House Republicans’ proposed $20 million increase would cover delayed salary increases, budget committee chairman Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, said during Tuesday morning’s budget hearing.

“We’re trying to bump them back up, improve staff numbers and so on there,” Worthan said during the hearing. "This puts out there in big, bold letters that we support our law enforcement people, we support our justice people, we support those people who are guarding our institutions and taking care of our offenders. Call it the thin blue line or the thin brown line standing between us and anarchy."

Homan noted that means the funding boost only covers current salaries and does not provide funding for additional staff.

Grassley said state corrections department leaders will be able to use the funding increase however they see fit.

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