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Union leader calls on officials to address Covid concerns in Iowa prisons

DES MOINES — The leader of the union that represents correctional officers says it’s time for the state prison system to quit accepting new admissions from county jails.

AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan said if that inconveniences sheriffs and others in the criminal justice system, so be it.

“We don’t need their problems coming in there,” Homan said during an online news conference Monday afternoon. “We need to shut this department down. Leave all inmates where they’re at and we need and we need to do this for four weeks, so that we can figure out what’s going on inside the walls.”

A spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections said halting admissions shifts the burden to county jails, most of which are ill-equipped to handle overcrowding or deal with an outbreak of the virus.

Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported at state prison facilities in Coralville, Fort Dodge, Mount Pleasant, Anamosa, Rockwell City, and Clarinda. Homan told reporters he’s concerned the state prison in Newton will be the site of the next outbreak. The department’s website shows 11 Newton inmates have recently tested positive for Covid.

“If we’re going to stop this inside the Department of Corrections, inside the state’s institution, we have to take drastic action,” Homan said, “and I believe the only way to do that is to stop admissions.”

Last week, state officials confirmed a staffer at the state prison for women in Mitchellville died of Covid. Homan says the corrections department now plans to distribute N95 face masks, which provide an elevated level of protections, to all staff, not just those who have direct contact with a Covid-positive inmate. Homan said another key concern is more staff are working double-shifts because others are sick or in quarantine because of an exposure.

“They’ve expended every ounce of energy they can and they’re just going to work on sheer will and that makes them vulnerable for a lot of other things,” Homan said. “Staffing is one of the biggest problems we have within the Department of Corrections.”

Cord Overton, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, accuses Homan of trying to “score cheap political points” rather than focus on how to best support each other through the pandemic.

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