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Iowa's correctional system has issues with recruiting, retaining prison staff, report finds

A review completed by CGL Companies found the DOC is taking steps to address problems like short staffing and overpopulation among Iowa's prisons.

DES MOINES, Iowa — An external review of the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) found the state's prison system has a problem with recruiting and retaining staff as well as overpopulation. 

The review comes nine months after Correctional Officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte were killed by two inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. The two men, Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard, pleaded guilty to the killings and were sentenced to consecutive life terms in prison.

CGL Companies, the criminal justice consulting firm that conducted the review, says the Iowa DOC "has focused its efforts on improving the safety and security of its facilities" since the deaths of McFarland and Schulte. The DOC has also released a timeline of events for the system's updates.

While improvements have been made, the firm notes the department's efforts have been hampered due to a lack of adequate staffing levels in facilities as well as "significant recruitment and retention issues." 

CGL says the DOC has worked to improve safety at its facilities by replacing administrators "across the system" as well as creating new policies to improve security practices.

"We found the administrators in place to be very competent and eager to improve operations," the report says. "The agency is making strides in refining its security controls." 

RELATED: Staffing levels have dropped 17% at the Iowa Department of Corrections since 2009 

The DOC has also re-implemented its security and safety audit processes following their postponements during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report also says the state agency has changed the way it assigns work to inmates. CGL says the department has developed a work assignment screening process to assess and classify inmates for placement in job assignments. 

"This process appears to better determine which incarcerated individuals are appropriate for assignments that have higher levels of independence or access to tools," CGL's report says. 

CGL notes the DOC is also improving how units are managed, recruitment and leadership engagement. The report also says staff are positive about the changes, however, some are "understandably apprehensive." 

The report says Iowa's correctional system is unique because of its population levels. CGL says many correctional systems are "experiencing substantial reductions in inmate populations and corresponding levels of crowding."

As of Dec. 13, 2021, CGL says the DOC housed 8,106 inmates in facilities had had a capacity of 6,990 beds. This is a shortfall of 16%. 

"This level of crowding exacerbates existing operational challenges in security, offender management, and service delivery, while placing significant additional pressure on custody staff," the report says. "The additional workload and heightened tension created by crowding is a major factor in the Department’s current staff recruitment and retention issues."

RELATED: As Iowa's 9th prison inmate dies from COVID-19, Dubuque mother worries her son could be next

CGL then discusses the DOC's problems with staffing among correctional officers and nurses. The report says the department would "benefit from bolstering staffing to meet current facility security requirements and the challenges of managing a modern correctional system." 

The report notes the already existing staffing gaps "create high levels of overtime that exacerbate the already difficult issue of staff retention." 

CGL says nursing vacancies are a "critical issue" in Iowa's prison system. The report notes the shortage of nurses has the potential to negatively impact health care in the DOC. 

"While recruitment and retention policies play a key role, the State of Iowa’s continued authorization of time and one-half pay for registered nurse overtime, as adopted during the pandemic, would help address this issue," the report says. 

The report says overall, staffing is the "most serious issue" that correctional facilities face across the United States. CGL suggests the department expand its use of retention bonuses and expand the salary pay scale range progression. 

CGL says staff training is "vital" for retention. While the DOC has implemented a training program and academy to help with training practices, CGL says further development must be done to make it more consistent.  

Watch all of Local 5's coverage of the Anamosa attacks on YouTube

The review also says correctional facilities require "greater consistency and system oversight." With the DOC's "very small central office," it can be difficult to direct and monitor the performance of every prison, according to the report. 

CGL says a bigger office is needed to keep up with the prison population. 

"A central office Policy/Compliance Unit should be created that is responsible for developing agency policies, ensuring their accurate communication and implementation, and evaluating system compliance to include providing facility scorecards for an overview of each facility’s performance as well as tracking of their corrective action," the report says. 

CGL's review says it found varying levels of tool and toxic chemical control practices at each facility. The firm suggests the DOC transition to a system of centralized storage and issuance of chemicals and toxins to each facility. 

The report also suggests the DOC institute a consistent protocol for moving inmates "to better facilitate offender movement." 

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