In a pandemic, justice means emptying Iowa’s prisons
The COVID-19 coronavirus has taken a toll on incarcerated people and prison staff, alike, across the U.S. Now, it’s in Iowa’s justice system. On Friday, the state’s Department of Corrections reported that a correctional officer at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center tested positive for the virus.
Though this is the first such case in Iowa, it likely won’t be the last. As other areas of the country have shown, once COVID-19 shows up behind bars, it spreads quickly.
Iowa should be commended for the steps it has taken so far to protect its correctional population from the virus. Speeding up the release of 700 people approved for parole and work release last month was a smart decision. Prisons are already difficult places to practice social distancing, and in Iowa — whose correctional facilities are overcrowded by 22 percent — it’s almost impossible. Therefore, safely depopulating prisons could literally save lives. But there’s more the state can do without any risk to public safety.
According to a recent report by the Council of State Government Justice Center, 40 percent of people in Iowa State prisons in 2018 were there because they violated a condition of community supervision programs like probation or parole. 1 out of every 4 of these violations was technical in nature; Minor infractions such as filing faulty paperwork or missing an appointment with a supervision officer.
With COVID-19 now having penetrated Iowa’s prison walls, the state should release people who are locked up for these minor technical violations immediately. No one should face a potential death sentence over a victimless crime.
Beyond the imminent need to protect this population from the pandemic, Iowa legislators should work on long-term fixes to the state’s supervision system when they return to session.
There are more than 27,000 people in Iowa currently under probation. And approximately 91 percent of people in Iowa prisons will ultimately be placed under parole supervision after they’re released.
The intention of community supervision is to hold individuals accountable in their community while also connecting them to the services they need to become a contributing member of society. However, in current practice, probation and parole in Iowa rarely meets this standard. Rather than successfully aiding re-entry, community supervision often serves as a pit stop on the path to prison.