Opinion | Let’s start talking about prison reform

Iowa is one of the worst states in the country in regard to mass incarceration, it is time we start addressing these issues.

Yassie Buchanan, Opinions Columnist

The world has had to make numerous changes to adjust to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one of the areas we should be looking into is prison reform.

Mass incarceration has been a problem in Iowa for years. According to research done by Prison Policy, Iowa incarcerates 568 people for every 100,000 people, this puts Iowa toward the top of incarceration rates internationally. Additionally, there are large disparities between white and minority incarceration rates. According to the research mentioned above, only 5 percent of Iowa’s population is Black yet Black Iowans make up nearly a quarter of the prison population.

With there already being a problem in Iowa regarding mass incarceration, there is no need to be incarcerating more people for non-violent petty crimes such as marijuana charges during a global pandemic.

According to an article done by the Des Moines Register  Iowa is among the top five in the country for large racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Black Iowans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white Iowans despite studies displaying the two groups consume marijuana at the same rate. Additionally, according to the article, the majority of Iowans are in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

When looking at the number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa, despite being a relatively small state, our COVID-19 numbers are fairly high in comparison to more populated states.

According to research done by The Marshall Project, there have been 1,238 total COVID-19 cases in prisons in Iowa and about 1,682 cases for every 10,000 prisoners. Additionally, there has been a total of four COVID-19-related deaths in Iowa prisons.

It’s important to note: not only are prisoners at increased risk during this time, but the staff is as well. According to The Marshall Project, there have been a total of 176 COVID-19 cases among prison staff in Iowa. Recently, the week of October 20th there was a spike of 12 new cases among prison staff.

Iowa has taken some reactionary steps in light of the pandemic. According to another report from Prison Policy, Iowa is among many states who have suspended medical co-pays associated with flu and COVID-19-related medical visits. With the average amount prisoners are paid for work in prisons, co-pays normally equate to free world workers paying between $200 and $500 dollars for medical visits.  Additionally, according to the ACLU, most Iowa prisons have seen a reduction in inmates since the start of the pandemic.

However, according to the ACLU, there have been many complaints from prisoners surrounding the lack of hygiene and sanitation resources as well as the lack of social distancing in prisons. Additionally, despite there being an overall reduction in inmates, there are still many prisons in Iowa that are over-capacity.

The Iowa ACLU has made demands to release prisoners whose sentences are meant to end in the next one to two years as well as those who are being imprisoned for minor charges or have major health issues that put them at risk.

This is just one change that Iowa can make that would help to protect those in the care of the state. While there are options, this is the most immediate step we can take to ensure the safety of prisoners of the state.

Clearly prison reform in Iowa is long overdue. The prison system, to begin with, disproportionately targets minority groups in Iowa as we have seen with the disparities in drug arrests. The pandemic is putting more prisoners and staff at risk for petty crimes. That needs to stop.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.