Thousands of masks produced for Iowa prisons after DOC sees first case of COVID-19


Inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex held a demonstration on Wednesday night after six inmates tested positive at the prison, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections. (April 9)

AP Domestic

An Iowa Department of Corrections worker is under quarantine after becoming the first person connected to the state’s prison system to test positive for the novel coronavirus. 

The staff member, a correctional officer at Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, tested positive last week after experiencing symptoms April 8 and 9, according to a DOC news release. The person reported his condition to a health care provider who directed them to take a test for COVID-19. The DOC was informed of the test Friday. 

“The last day they were at work was Wednesday, April 8, which is when symptoms began to be present,” the release states. The worker, an unidentified adult between 18 and 40 years old, is on paid administrative leave. 

A day after the test, the DOC made it mandatory that corrections officers wear masks at all times, leading to thousands of employees needing three masks each. By Wednesday, three masks were available for all DOC workers and inmates, though prisoners are not forced to wear the coverings, according to Cord Overton, a spokesman with the department.

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Overton had previously said officials were ramping up production of the masks created by inmates working for Iowa Prison Industries. 

Any employee with a positive test must be isolated for 14 days then show no symptoms for 72 hours before returning to work, Overton said.

He said his department’s guidelines are based on suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health. Beth Skinner, director of the Iowa DOC, has also been talking with Department of Public Safety officials — as well as corrections authorities in states where COVID-19 has affected prison populations — to develop best practices to prevent an outbreak here, Overton said.

“As we’ve seen elsewhere, it is an enormous challenge once (the virus) takes hold inside a prison,” he said.

Cases among jail and prison inmates and workers have been reported in several states, including Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and California. No Iowa inmates have tested positive for the virus, Overton said, though one test is currently pending. As of Wednesday, 58 inmates at five DOC facilities tested negative — including 42 at IMCC alone.

Iowa DOC prisons are about 21 percent overcapacity, according to daily department records. 

While the DOC tracks inmates’ test results, Overton said staff members self-report any symptoms or tests for COVID-19. He said several DOC workers across the state have been tested, but only one has reported a positive. 

Inmates with symptoms are tested by medical staff at the DOC institutions while employees obtain tests through their personal health care providers. 

“Our staff deserves a lot of credit. As we’ve learned, the most likely vectors for the virus to reach prisons is through the workers who go home every day,” Overton said. “The fact that we haven’t had any inmates test positive for COVID-19 shows how vigilant our workers have been. They’re being careful off-duty, monitoring their symptoms and not coming to work if they don’t feel well.”

The IMCC is the intake prison for all new admissions, meaning some offenders only stop there briefly before reporting to the facility where they’ll serve their sentence. When asked if there is concern the infected employee could have made contact with an inmate who has moved to a different location, Overton said the DOC is minimizing the number of transfers as much as possible. 

“We are being prudent in ensuring that we’re not transferring any inmates that are showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” he wrote in an email. “We take the temperature of every inmate prior to transport, and upon their arrival at their destination facility to prevent the introduction of the virus.”

Department officials are ensuring all DOC locations — which include prisons and community-based corrections institutions such as residential-treatment or work-release programs — are well-supplied with protective equipment and hand sanitizer, Overton said. 

Not only are there enough masks for prison workers and inmates to each have three, Overton said each offender, staff member and officer in residential locations also has access to a trio of masks. 

Updates about the department’s response to the coronavirus can be found at

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