Anamosa prison murders linked to staffing shortages, labor union says

The murders of two employees at the Anamosa State Penitentiary March 23 are the climax of chronic staffing shortages at the state’s prisons, according to a labor union that represents prison workers.

Ten nursing jobs — or 35 percent of the authorized nursing positions at the Anamosa prison — are vacant because of lack of state funding, AFSCME Council 61 reports. There are 14 correctional officer vacancies, or about 6 percent of the authorized positions at the prison with about 850 inmates, according to the union.

Statewide, Iowa’s prisons, which are 10 percent over capacity, are about 9 percent understaffed, AFSCME said in a letter sent last week to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and leaders of the Iowa House and Senate.

“For years, inadequate funding has seen the number of correctional officers and corrections staff drop,” AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan wrote in the March 31 letter to Reynolds, Reps. Pat Grassley, Matt Windschitl and Todd Prichard as well as Sens. Zach Wahls, Jack Whitver and Jake Chapman. “What happened in Anamosa was a tragedy that never should have happened. You have the power now in these final weeks of the session to ensure it does not happen again.”

AFSCME, which has called a news conference for 11 a.m. Tuesday outside the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines, is asking the Legislature to:

• Fully fund 234 vacant positions in the Department of Corrections

• Restore collective bargaining rights “so employees can negotiate workplace safety” and

• Conduct an independent investigation of the March 23 murders in Anamosa

Two inmates, Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard face murder, kidnapping and attempted murder charges based on allegations they struck correctional Officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte in the head with hammers, killing them. The inmates took Lorie Matthes, another Anamosa employee, hostage briefly and seriously wounded another inmate, McKinley Roby, investigators allege.

Woodard and Dutcher were attempting to escape the prison and used the hammers to break the window in an employee break room off the infirmary, authorities said. They tried, but failed, to use a grinder from the prison maintenance department to cut through metal bars covering the windows. The inmates, who were part of the maintenance crew, gained access to the area under the pretense of fixing something.

Iowa’s state institutions have become more dangerous for employees, AFSCME said in the letter. Before the March 23 murders, the Corrections Department had reported a dozen assaults of staff by offenders in the previous year, The Gazette reported last month.

AFSCME also highlighted the 2018 beating of a nurse at the Mental Health Institute in Independence. Tina Suckow was beaten until she was unconscious. Then later, as she was recovering from surgeries related to the attack, the state fired her, according to a 2019 Des Moines Register investigation.

The union alleges changes to collective bargaining rights for public employee unions, made in 2017, have eroded worker safety.

The Gazette asked the Corrections Department to verify AFSCME’s staffing numbers at the Anamosa prison, but the agency did not immediately respond.

Wahls, a Coralville Democrat, said he supports AFSCME’s proposed steps, including funding vacant prison vacancies. The Legislature last month approved $4 million more for correctional workers in fiscal 2022, but that will only help the agency provide 1.1 percent pay increases to current employees, not hire new officers, Wahls said.

“In terms of likelihood (of supplemental funding), that will be depend on the Republicans” who control both the House and Senate, Wahls said.

He’d also like the Legislature to require an independent investigation of the March 23 attack, rather than letting the Corrections Department do its own probe. “That will create real accountability. Without an independent investigation, I doubt we’ll really know what happened.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Anamosa prison murders linked to staffing shortages, labor union says