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Iowa prison worker deaths prompt urgent call for reforms

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Iowa prison worker deaths prompt urgent call for reforms
By Ezra Kane-Salafia and Raju Chebium ·
Iowa prison worker deaths prompt urgent call for reforms
Lorena Schulte

The deaths of two AFSCME Iowa members during an attempted prison escape have prompted urgent demands from Council 61 for immediate staffing increases and sweeping reforms to make the state’s correctional facilities safer for workers.

Registered Nurse Lorena Schulte, 50, and Corrections Officer Robert McFarland, 46, were killed on March 23 by two inmates who were trying to escape from Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Schulte and McFarland tried to stop Michael Dutcher and Thomas Woodard when the inmates attacked them, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Lori Mathis, an Anamosa staff member and AFSCME member, was assaulted and taken hostage when she tried to intervene, and an inmate sustained injuries while trying to help the victims. Dutcher and Woodard face murder, attempted murder and kidnapping charges.

During a news conference Tuesday, Council 61 President Danny Homan said years of defunding, staff cuts and safety lapses have created unsafe conditions for prison staff across Iowa.

Across the Hawkeye State, there were 1,371 budgeted correctional officer positions in 2019, Homan said, citing state data. But in 2009, there were 1,594. That’s a reduction of 223 CO positions – though Iowa’s inmate population rose slightly from 8,461 to 8,475 in that decade, according to a fact sheet compiled by Council 61.

That includes 14 staff vacancies at the Anamosa prison, according to a letter Homan sent to Iowa lawmakers seeking an investigation into the events.

“Robert McFarland and Lorena Schulte were heroes, and we must always remember them and the sacrifice they made to their state,” Homan said. “This attack was brutal. This attack was completely avoidable. Our prisons and community-based correctional facilities do not have the staffing levels and workplace protections they need to ensure the safety of our staff.”

Anamosa State Penitentiary has 320 staff members to guard 945 inmates in the maximum- and medium-security wings. There has been a string of assaults on staff in recent years at Anamosa, which houses some of Iowa’s most violent offenders including those convicted of murder. 

“Over the last decade, as the budget for the Department of Corrections stagnated and protections for workers were stripped from them, we said over and over an attack like this could happen. This wasn’t hyperbole – this was because we could see it happening. Because the prisons were getting more and more dangerous,” Homan said.

It’s not just staffing that’s a problem. Since 2017, when the Iowa Legislature eviscerated state employees’ collective bargaining rights, workers have been unable to negotiate over workplace safety, he noted.

“Officers, nurses, and support staff need the ability to negotiate ways to make their jobs safer,” Homan said. “These employees deserve to have their voices heard in their workplace, deserve the chance to discuss workplace safety and other issues that will make their lives easier. They deserve to be shown the dignity and respect of being able to negotiate wages, benefits and grievance procedures.”

Schulte, a 14-year employee of Anamosa State Penitentiary, and McFarland, a 13-year veteran, were beloved by fellow staff and inmates alike. One former inmate said Schulte and McFarland were kind and considerate and were genuinely concerned about him. He called Schulte “good hearted” and said she’d always inquire after his welfare. McFarland, whom he described as a “good dude,” would discuss Iowa college sports and talk about his job as a volunteer firefighter.

According to the Des Moines Register, Schulte was a native of El Salvador who was adopted and brought to the U.S. in 1982. A gardener and an avid cook, she worked at Anamosa as a correctional officer and took night classes at Kirkwood Community College to become a registered nurse. McFarland, a father of three who liked to tinker with technology, was passionate about serving as a volunteer firefighter. He rose up the ranks to become a lieutenant with the Ely Volunteer Fire Department and worked at two other fire departments prior to that.

Schulte is survived by her adoptive mother and father, Stephanie and George Schulte; and her siblings Isabel, Gretchen and Milton. McFarland is survived by his wife Sara, children Colten, Zach and Casen; his mother, Cathie Struck; and siblings Angie, Kayleen LaPointe and David.

Anamosa, a close-knit community of about 5,500, has rallied around the victims’ families, holding vigils, an honor run, a community healing event, a celebration of life and a number of other events in honor of the victims.

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