Democrats in the Iowa Senate and the state employees’ union are raising concerns about the personnel plans for guards in the new state prison in Fort Madison.
Today, correctional officers are assigned to work in a specific area of the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. Once the new prison opens next year, Senator Rich Taylor of Mount Pleasant says those prison workers will not have a permanent assignment. They will be rotated to work in different areas of the prison. Taylor says rotating jobs within the prison is a recipe for disaster.
“The inmates don’t move. The inmates stay there and they form their coalitions and they have their — what can I say? — scams that they pull,” Taylor says. “Well, if you’re not familiar with the area or familiar with the inmates, you don’t know what to look for. You don’t know what to watch out for.”
Taylor worked as an air conditioning mechanic at the Fort Madison prison for 27 years before he retired in 2010 and he was there when former Governor Tom Vilsack decided the practice of rotating personnel within the state’s prisons should end.
“I know in (the state prison in) Anamosa they formed a tunnel because people were rotating their jobs and weren’t aware of what was going on with these inmates and they practically escaped,” Taylor says. “They did that out at the John Bennett Center in Fort Madison years ago. They were almost under the fence.”
The John Bennett Correctional Center is a medium-security dormitory next to the maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary. Taylor says a rotation schedule for correctional officers in the newly-constructed maximum-security prison in Fort Madison will create too much inconsistency.
“Not only you don’t know who the inmates are that you’re dealing with day to day, you don’t know who the other staff are and you count on your other staff members for your life and you know exactly what they’re going to be doing, how they’re going to react,” Taylor says.
In August an arbitrator ruled that all correctional officer jobs within the state’s prisons were to be permanent assignments rather than a rotation of roles within the prison. Last week Governor Terry Branstad said he was not aware of the arbitrator’s ruling.
“I really don’t want to comment without knowing the details of the decision,” Branstad said.
Senator Taylor says that’s unacceptable.
“The governor doesn’t know what’s going on in his only maximum-security penitentiary in the state?” Taylor asks. “It’s hard to believe that he doesn’t know, but if he doesn’t that’s just unacceptable.”
Senator Tom Courtney, a Democrat from Burlington, says prisons are “risky environments” and “sudden, unexpected changes in work assignments increase risks for everyone” including the general public.
A spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections declined to comment.