Opinion | Empty the jails

Our prison policy has killed too many, and it’s not just prisoners paying for it.

Peyton Downing, Opinions Columnist

With everyone’s eyes on the criminal justice system in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s trial, there’s an important aspect that relates directly back to Iowa that we need to speak about. American prisons are garbage and have been for years. In the wake of the Anamosa prison killings, in which two employees died, we need to talk about what we can do not just for the sake of prisoners, but for guards and our communities.

The Iowa prison population is absurd — we were at 124 percent capacity in 2019 with 8,525 prisoners, according to The Des Moines Register. While the current population is 7,489 prisoners according to Iowa Data, we are still vastly overstretched in our capacity.

To address this issue, Denny Holman, president of AFSCME Council 61, stated that the only way to fix this is to hire more staff, give funding for equipment upgrades and worker training programs, allow public workers to collectively bargain for safety and health issues and fund an independent investigation into the occurrence of March 23, according to *The Gazette*.

Now, I have utmost respect for Holman. However, his views and actions would only be a bandage on the gaping wound that is our prison system.

The fact of the matter is multiple sources forecast the same thing — the Iowa prison population is forecasted to increase much higher than what it’s at presently. We will only continue to have to expand that budget more.

And that is not to help these people get back into the community as productive members of society, but to merely contain them.

To address this, we need to overhaul the prison system.

Pretrial detention is one of the worst causes of prison population growth in the nation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The reason for this is simple — many people cannot simply afford to post bail.

An alternative to the bail system would be pretrial services, including GPS monitoring, court call reminders, drug tests and check-ins.

This method reduces costs, reduces income and racial disparities, and provides for more equitable outcomes in sentencing, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

If we were to adopt this method, we would cut down on a massive number of incarcerated individuals in Iowa. In 2015 alone, 74 percent of Iowa prison population were pretrial detainees, according to The Vera Institute of justice.

In addition, there are a variety of programs that we could give greater funding and credence to that would provide more positive outcomes for prisoners and thus the communities which they are meant to reintegrate back into.

Out of all the prison-based programs in Iowa the most effective per dollar were cognitive behavioral programs. For each dollar put into it, we gained $37.70 in net benefits according to The Iowa Department of Corrections.

It doesn’t just have to stop there. Vocational education, trade skills, mental health assistance, and therapy are all things that could provide massive benefits to these people that would allow them to be productive and capable members of society.

But just by throwing them in prisons and leaving them to rot we will ensure that our recidivism rates remain upwards of 60 percent, according to the US Bureau of justice.

It is an abysmal state of affairs that our prisons are overcrowding far more people that need to be in there so that we cannot keep in on those who need it the most. In order to help our correction officers, we need to give them less prisoners to work with, rather than just hiring more.


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.