DES MOINES, Iowa – An inmate killed a nurse and correctional officer at a state penitentiary in Iowa Tuesday, officials said, in what they called a senseless tragedy and the worst attack on prison staff in decades.
The attack at Anamosa State Penitentiary, which houses those convicted of violent crimes, happened Tuesday morning in the prison’s infirmary, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.
Officials said an inmate attacked multiple staff members and inmates. Staff eventually restrained the inmate, and employees began attempting first aid on those injured until paramedics arrived.
“As a result of their injuries, a correctional nurse and correctional officer have died,” the department said in a statement.
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The deadly attack in Iowa sent “shockwaves across our professional landscape,” said Correctional Leaders Association Executive Director Kevin Kempf, and set in motion mourning across the city of 5,500 people, where the hulking prison dominates the landscape and daily life.
“Today, our state grieves the loss of two public servants who were attacked while on duty at the Anamosa State Penitentiary,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. “My prayers and deepest condolences are with their families, friends, and colleagues as they begin to cope with this senseless tragedy. We will exhaust every available resource to deliver justice to those who committed this act and bring a sense of closure and peace to the victims’ families.”
Inmates have routinely assaulted staff at Anamosa, including several incidents involving punches and kicks that caused injuries and required medical treatment in the last year. But the deaths are believed to be the first time an Iowa prison staff member has been killed by an inmate since 1972.
“You know so many people that work there, so you worry…” said Micaela Loewen, 31, who has worked at a Anamosa hair salon for 13 years, although she lives in Cedar Rapids. “Is it someone you know?”
Anamosa Mayor Rod Smith learned of the killings Tuesday afternoon from a co-worker whose wife works at the facility.
In the town of about 5,400 people, everyone knows someone who works at the prison or used to work there, Smith said. He said he was shocked and devastated and offered his condolences to the families and friends of the slain. He did not know who the victims were, and was waiting for more information from state officials.
As of Tuesday evening, it was not publicly known who was killed in the attack. The names of the victims and the inmate were withheld pending investigation and family notifications, according to the release. The incident is being investigated by the Iowa DOC and the state Division of Criminal Investigation.
Anamosa State Penitentiary is a maximum- and medium-security prison with about 950 male inmates and 321 staff, according to its website. Its 2019 annual report listed an average daily population of 989. About 70% of the inmates were convicted of violent crimes, and the average sentence being served is more than 25 years, according to the report.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61, which represents Iowa’s correctional officers, called it a sad day on Facebook.
“Two forgotten heroes who just went to work and now will never come home,” the post reads. “Thoughts and prayers to them and their families, both outside the walls and those who still hold the line.”
In previous attacks at other facilities, the union has blamed attacks by inmates on workers on low staffing levels.
Attack comes on heels of trying year in prisons
Kempf, the Correctional Leaders Association director, said he had only a basic understanding of the attack but was worried that the incident in Iowa, seen as a correctional champion in the industry, is emblematic of the problems corrections departments could face coming out of the pandemic.
The prison industry is just starting to come out of its toughest year in its history, with the pandemic pushing many inmates into solitary and lockdowns in an effort to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, he said. COVID-19 has ravaged prisons due to the tight confines and the easy spread of the coronavirus.
Nineteen Iowa inmates have died of COVID-19 complications, according to the Iowa DOC, and more than 4,800 have tested positive since March 2020.
The Correctional Leaders Association is a collaborative of prison executives who oversee 400,000 correctional professionals and 8 million inmates.
“It’s something that our correctional leaders have been talking about and have been very much worried about,” Kempf said. “If you think about it, in just about every correctional facility across the United States over the past year, due to COVID-19, we’ve had a lot of people who are incarcerated that have been in segregated and in isolation.”