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Iowa DOC Changes Policy After Ombudsman Calls Out Unfair Prisoner Discipline

by Kevin W. Bliss

In its Annual Report on December 15, 2022, the Iowa Ombudsman Office (IOO) called out the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for unfairly addressing abuse of K2 by prisoners and also failing to protect those in protective custody (PC). But Ombudsman Bernardo Granwehr said policy changes had been made to address his concerns.

Like many states, Iowa has struggled with K2, a synthetic drug easily smuggled into lockups. There it is cut into hundreds of doses and resold at a massive profit, making it extremely appealing to traffickers.

But field testing for K2 is not conclusive. Guards use field-test kits whose manufacturers state that results need to be confirmed in a certified laboratory. Since certain component chemical compounds of the drug are commonly found elsewhere, false positives occur in about 38% of field tests.

Nevertheless, IOO found that many state prisoners lost privileges for alleged rule violations based solely on these undependable drug tests – without any confirmation by a lab. It recommended a change in DOC policy to verify field tests and reinstate lost privileges to prisoners when those laboratory results come back negative. Earlier in 2022, the report stated, DOC “had suspended use of the questionable field test” and that “positive tests alone are now expected to have supporting evidence.”

IOO also found inadequate policies to prevent interaction between PC prisoners and those under a “Keep Separate” (KS) designation in a prison’s general population (GP). Institutional policy failed to protect at least one PC prisoner during transport for a routine medical call-out at a high-security state lockup; he was assaulted by a fellow prisoner, despite a KS order. To prevent this, the report stated that prison policies need to be revised so that transport to medical or other appointments avoids all contact with prisoners in GP. As a result, IOO said that DOC “developed a procedure to ensure staff were aware of any KS issues” and that critical areas would be cleared of non-PC prisoners “prior to and during escorts.”

Lastly, IOO found at least one prisoner was inappropriately denied a grievance appeal that was erroneously determined to be untimely filed. IOO said the appeal was timely filed – on July 8, 2022 – but the reviewing department did not stamp it received until July 16. The date resulted in rejection, and it was unfair to the prisoner to deny relief when proper procedure was followed, IOO said. The report recommended that DOC change mailbox rules governing grievances or appeals to make sure timeliness determinations are based on the date a form is received rather than the date submitted.

Source: Iowa Office Ombudsman Annual Report FY22