Nearly two-thirds of the proposed state government layoffs involve employees of the Iowa Department of Corrections.
Under the budget-cutting plan Department director John Baldwin submitted to the governor, over 500 people who are working in the prison system today would be laid off. Baldwin told reporters a reduction of that magnitude doesn’t necessarily heighten his concerns about safety inside prison walls.
“We are always worried about staff safety, offender safety,” Baldwin said. “This doesn’t change a lot. In fact, even in our best economic times, we wanted to make sure that staff and offenders were safe.”
According to Baldwin, Iowa’s prison system was already lean. “We operate the 49th cheapest cost-per-citizen corrections department in the United States,” Baldwin said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “We are constantly challenging our staff and they, in turn, are challenging us to find ways to do our job better and improve our outcomes.”
The agency spends most of its budget on salaries. While other state agencies have been able to make shifts and pay some salaries with federal funds to deal with the 10 percent cut in state spending that was ordered by the governor, that’s not possible in the Department of Corrections as nearly all of its budget comes from the state.
“Therefore, this impacts us at a fairly high level,” Baldwin said. “…A lot of our costs are basically fixed. There clearly are constitutional issues and legal court suites that involve food, fuel and pharmacy and other issues that must be funded.”
The prison director doesn’t recommend closing any of the state’s prisons. “I think part of that whole thing rests with what the available inventory is, whether you have the right mix of medium and maximum, where the folks are, what programs are available, and then what percentage of over-capacity we would be,” Baldwin said. “If you get over-capacity, then you invite all sorts of different legal challenges.”
There are presently 262 unfilled positions in the state’s prison system and Baldwin has recommended that those positions be eliminated. That means the total reduction in the prison system’s labor force would be 777 employees.
Governor Culver issued a written statement, saying he wants to “minimize” layoffs and the plans agency directors submitted to his office Tuesday are a “starting” point rather than the final product that he’ll approve.