DES MOINES, Iowa – About 80 inmates at an Iowa maximum security prison could face disciplinary action in connection to a large fight this month, a far greater number of people than the state corrections department has publicly said were directly involved in the melee, the agency has told The Associated Press.
The estimate could add weight to claims from a union representing correctional officers that the July 1 fight at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison has been downplayed by the Iowa Department of Corrections. A corrections report about the fight obtained by AP also includes previously unreleased details about the disturbance, including that inmates ignored orders and challenged staff to fight.
The incident in the prison yard is among the largest in Iowa since a 1981 riot that lasted 11 hours, involved at least 100 inmates, led to a hostage situation and left one inmate dead. By comparison, the latest fight was contained shortly after it started, according to the department, and resulted in only minor injuries for some inmates and no injuries to staff. Officials responded by temporarily restricting inmate movements in the prison.
The department has estimated publicly that about 50 inmates were directly involved in the incident. Corrections spokesman Michael Savala said in an email that the number remains accurate, and wouldn't elaborate as to why 80 inmates could face discipline.
"This number may go up or down based on the continuing investigation," he added.
Savala also said in an email that suspected gang members were involved in the fight and that some inmates may be moved to other facilities. He then insisted that information, and the details in the incident report obtained by AP, are confidential. He added that releasing such details would be a security risk for inmates and staff, but did not specify how.
According to the incident report, some inmates suspected of being in the fight are part of so-called security threat groups that are described further in the report as racially affiliated gangs.
The incident report said about 40 to 50 offenders threw "closed fist punches at each other" during the fight, and physical force and chemical agents were needed to gain control of fighting inmates "as they would not cease their actions from verbal directions."
The report noted "multiple offenders" challenged staff to fight. Injuries to the inmates later ranged from superficial lacerations to bruises and a possible broken nose, according to the report.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 61, which represents correctional officers, criticized the department days after the fight. In a July 5 press release, it said the incident was racially motivated and endangered correctional officers.
"The fact that no staff were injured and the involved inmates only sustained minor injuries is a miracle," union President Danny Homan said in a statement.
The union declined to comment further beyond its press release.
The southeast Iowa prison houses men and opened in 2015. It replaced a nearby facility that had operated for more than 100 years and was the site of the 1981 riot. The new facility's opening was delayed amid construction issues.
When asked earlier this month whether security at the prison is being reviewed in the wake of the fight, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she "would assume that would be part of the process," but that she couldn't say with certainty.
Brenna Smith, Reynolds' press secretary, later said via email: "We're confident department leadership will implement any necessary policy changes as a result of their investigation."