As Iowans, we take for granted that when a person found guilty of a crime is locked up, they stay there. Unless you are a correctional worker or their family, the old saying, "out of sight, out of mind" applies to our correctional institutions. The correctional officers that our union represents want the public to know that while they work hard every day to keep them safe, they do not have adequate staffing now and the problem is getting worse.
For example, at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, corrections workers are so short-staffed that they aren't able to get requested time off. Staff has to scramble just to get short breaks from their long shifts. The night shift is down to 17 officers to supervise approximately 1,200 inmates. Weapons are being constructed by inmates, and in the case of another corrections institution, guns and shanks were discovered on accident because there are not enough officers to do the necessary inspections to find this dangerous contraband. At the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City, the prison is operating at seven to 10 officers for every 500 inmates, and some correctional workers are being forced to do jobs they aren't supposed to be doing. Since no overtime is approved, if someone doesn't make it to work, staff must scramble to cover the shift with whatever personnel they have, or they run the institution without being fully staffed. What I've described isn't unique to Fort Dodge or Rockwell City; these problems are happening all across the Department of Corrections.
Simply put, the morale of these officers is extremely low, and they are feeling unsafe just to go to work at the beginning of their shift. No correctional worker should leave their family wondering if they will return to them. These correctional workers care about their communities, they are your neighbors, and they don't want any inmate to escape or harm the public. They don't want to be visiting anyone in the hospital, or worse, attend a funeral because our state didn't allocate the resources to let them do their jobs.
This year the Legislature approved 40 new correctional officers within the Department of Corrections. While that's commendable, that's only a drop in the bucket compared to the needs that we have as a state. According to the department itself, we now have a record number of inmates in Iowa's prisons.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - AFSCME - has learned that to alleviate the problem, the Department of Corrections is planning on working with the parole board to release 1,000 inmates. Are these inmates ready to enter society, or is this a short-sided way to divert the criticism that we are leveling? With a billion dollars in reserve, our state has the resources to deal with this issue, and there is no excuse if the unthinkable happens at one of our state's correctional institutions. These correctional workers want to take their message to the public, and are asking you to contact your state legislators, the Department of Corrections, and especially the governor of Iowa. The public needs to let these decision makers know that this is an issue that can't be ignored any longer.
Danny Homan is president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61.