TV6 INVESTIGATES: Problems at state prisons in Iowa and Illinois

Published: Aug. 22, 2019 at 11:06 PM CDT
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As prison under-staffing concerns continue to grow nationwide, some say the declining numbers of correctional officers has led to an increase in assaults on staff.

In 20 states, correctional officers make less than 20 dollars an hour, which some say has led to lower staffing.

In Iowa there are approximately six inmates to every correctional officer. In Illinois, according to the Department of Corrections, there are four to every correctional officer.

In terms of pay, Iowa correctional officers start at $40 thousand per year, averaging $19.23 an hour. In Illinois starting pay is $42,432, or above $20 an hour.

Danny Homan, President of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, the union representing Iowa Department of Corrections workers, said the problems inside the prison system are directly related to staffing.

According to Homan, in 2005 two men, serving life sentences for murder, escaped from the Iowa State Penitentiary.

"We have had two attempted rapes in the last year I believe. We had an officer stabbed five times at Iowa State Penitentiary,” Homan said.

Homan believes these types of incidents are only getting worse.

"I would challenge anybody within the Department of Corrections who wants to tell me that the prisons are safe and there's less assaults going on inside the prisons,” he said.

Data provided to TV6 shows that while Homan is correct about a decrease in correctional officers, the number of assaults, including those with serious injury is actually down.

In 2014, 165 assaults on staff were reported in state prisons. 16 of those resulted in serious injury.

Five years later, assaults on staff were down nearly 42 percent, with 8 serious injuries reported.

2018 marked the lowest year of assaults on staff in nine years, but the number of corrections officers statewide is nearly 15 percent less than it was five years ago.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections said the safety of staff is the highest priority of the department.

"This department is committed to efforts to see the downward trend in violence against our staff continue to trend in that direction," the spokesperson said.

When we asked the Iowa Department of Corrections what the ideal staffing number of correctional officers would be, they told us assessments of their security staffing are confidential under Iowa law.

In Illinois, that information is public record.

The Illinois Department of Corrections says their ideal number of correctional officers is 10,077.

The state currently has 1,349 vacancies.

Nikki Robinson, Chief Public Safety Officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections says, “it's not because our staff are walking out the doors going to find other means of employment. Most of our staff stay here and retire from the system."

Robinson says this number reflects the correctional officers who have retired from the system.

Data does show that although the staffing is still at a deficit, their staffing numbers have gone up each year over the past five years.

The prison population is going down.

Robinson says of the staffing numbers, “that's fairly comparable for the number of offenders in our custody, which is down and has been down in recent years."

While there are nearly 8,300 fewer inmates in Illinois prisons than there were five years ago, data shows the number of assaults on staff is going up.

In 2015, 566 assaults on staff were reported. In 2019, 793 assaults on staff were reported.

Robinson says the Illinois Department of Corrections has created better programming to deal with issues of conflict and aggression in the state’s prisons.

Additionally, they have an employee assistance program they now offer to invest in staff members' mental health and well-being.

She tells TV6 in terms of the nature of assaults on staff, which range from assaults with a weapon, assaults with feces or other bodily fluids, to sexual assaults and more, the injuries as a whole nationwide are much more serious.

Robinson says statistics show her staff go home each night, "As you have probably seen across the United States a lot of assaults against our correctional officers resulting in death, well that has not occurred here in Illinois in decades or so."

While the number of prisons and staff differ state to state, in some, the correctional officer to inmate ratio is much higher.

As we told you before, in Illinois the correctional officer to inmate ratio is approximately one to every four.

In Iowa the correctional officer to inmate ratio is approximately one to every six.

Compare that to states like Alabama, where the correctional officer to inmate ratio is one to every 9.9 inmates.

Still, Homan and others agree work needs to be done.

He says, "It's just a lot worse than when I started my career in corrections in 1984."

Despite staffing concerns and assaults faced in prisons nationwide, officials in both states say the training and benefits are competitive, and the staff that take these positions know the inherent risk that comes with the career.

Each state says they are taking steps to ensure the safety of their employees.