Union raises prison safety concerns

Leader has accused Branstad of “playing Russian roulette”

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March 31, 2014 | 10:16 pm

DES MOINES — The leader of a state employees’ union has accused Gov. Terry Branstad and his administration of “playing Russian roulette” with the lives of correctional officers working in state prisons by failing to adequately staff institutions where two more officers were attacked by inmates this week.

The critical comments Wednesday by Danny Homan, president of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, drew immediate rebukes from state officials who warned that such public pronouncements incite and “embolden” prisoners while putting officers at risk.

Homan issued his statement in response to separate inmate attacks on correctional officers at state prisons in Fort Dodge and Fort Madison this week; they followed a similar incident at the Anamosa State Penitentiary on July 13.

John Baldwin, director of the state Department of Corrections, confirmed that two correctional officers were treated and released for unspecified injuries Wednesday after they were attacked by an inmate in the clinical care unit at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison — a unit outside the penitentiary walls that houses 202 offenders with mental illness and other conditions. The unit was placed on restricted movement status and the inmate was put in a separate cell, but operations inside the prison walls were unaffected by the incident, which remains under investigation, he said.

One day earlier, Baldwin said, an “isolated” incident between a Fort Dodge inmate and a correctional officer was resolved quickly by staff. He said that resulted in the entire institution being placed on restricted status for a time; the unit where the disturbance took place remained on restricted status overnight but gradually returned to normal conditions on Wednesday.

Homan said it was fortunate that the Fort Dodge unit where the attack took place was fully staffed at the time and that backup assistance arrived within 20 seconds so the officer suffered only minor injuries.

“This attack demonstrates why adequate staffing is so important and is needed in all of our correctional facilities at all times,” he said in a statement. “Adequate staffing is the best way to ensure a quick response and greatly decrease the risk of injury or death.”

In the Fort Madison incident, Homan said, two correctional officers were attacked by an inmate when one of them attempted to stop a fight between inmates. That officer was stabbed in the back with a pencil and suffered injuries to his face; the other suffered a dislocated finger and other injuries, he said.

“Gov. Branstad and Director Baldwin need to take their heads out of the sand and stop playing Russian roulette with the lives of the staff of our correctional institutions,” Homan’s statement said. “Inmates know our institutions are understaffed: inmates have plenty of time to count staff. If the Governor does not act soon, how is he going to explain himself to a grieving family when a tragedy happens?”

Baldwin acknowledged that the ratio of inmates to correctional officers has increased since fiscal 2009, but he noted that lawmakers and the governor approved about $7.5 million for the current fiscal year to hire more prison staff. He expected nearly 60 people will be added by the end of July, with most of the positions being correctional officers.

“We always try to have as many staff as our financial situation allows,” he said. Baldwin said staff at the state prisons — which this week housed a total of 8,311 inmates, 15 percent above the number they were designed to hold — continue to “do a marvelous job” in an employment setting that always is difficult and dangerous.

“I think to characterize it as Russian roulette clearly is inciteful, it clearly is meant to intensify a situation, in my mind, and I think AFSCME does their own staff no favors by using such derogatory language,” Baldwin said in response to Homan’s statement.

“We don’t want any confrontations between the staff and the offenders — period. That regretfully is not an uncommon corrections situation,” he added. “We’ve worked very hard to try to train to staff how to take care of themselves and de-escalate and we make sure that the offenders know that there’s consequences for their actions. Both of the offenders involved here will be referred to the county attorney for prosecution. We take the assaults on staff very, very seriously.”

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said statements like the one Homan issued “only embolden prisoners and put the correctional officers at risk. Where was Danny Homan when (former Gov. Chet) Culver and the Legislature were decimating their budgets? Gov. Branstad has increased funding and staved off further cuts forced on corrections by the previous administration. Danny Homan needs to immediately stop with the reckless allegations and his blatant disregard for the truth.”

Homan issued a similar concern earlier this month that “staffing levels in our state prison system have reached emergency levels” when a state correctional officer required medical attention after he was attacked by an inmate at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. At that time, AFSCME said the attack was the third security-related incident at the penitentiary in 30 days.

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