Vol. 6 #1 January 9, 2015
Justice Reform Consortium lost a very dear friend earlier this year. Art Neu of Carroll passed away at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines on Friday, January 2, 2015. The former Republican state senator, Mayor of Carroll, and lieutenant governor was a strong supporter of JRC. In fact, he graciously accepted an award from us at a 2011 JRC Annual Meeting for his work toward our mission. We honored Art and former Democratic state senator and Story County Supervisor Johnie Hammond together. Both served on the Board of Corrections when it unanimously voted to support legislation restricting the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners [see article below].
We are reprinting the following article from the JRC Newsletter of November 7, 2011.
In her presentation to Art, Jean Basinger, JRC Chair, told Art that: “We realize that this is not the most prestigious award that you have received in your many years of service to the people of Iowa. Nevertheless, we feel that few have been more sincere.” Art has received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Iowa for distinguished service for exceptional contributions for advancing research and educational opportunities at the University. He has served in the Iowa Senate and on the Board of Regents, was the Mayor of Carroll, and Chair of the Board of St. Anthony’s Hospital in Carroll. He is admired by both Democrats and Republicans. He served on the Board of Iowa Public Radio and also Iowa Legal Aid, but, as Jean mentioned, his “concern for low income folks, the elderly, those living with disabilities, in institutions, abused women and children, and those living on low incomes has not been simply a matter of serving on boards. You have always gone beyond the board room.”
Art does more than sit on boards. According to his wife, Naomi, he has met people face to face at home. Many prisoners and their families write to Art asking for help and he is persistent in finding the answers that people seek.
Art served faithfully for many years on the Iowa Board of Corrections and was never afraid to ask the hard questions of the Corrections staff. He took the risk of introducing a motion that the Board recommend to the governor and the Iowa Legislature that those persons serving a sentence of life without parole have the opportunity to apply for commutation of their sentence every 5 years rather than every 10 as it now stands. (This was also supported by Johnie Hammond, who was honored along with Art.) It was a very risky move. But, as Jean said, “you have always believed that all people, even those who have committed a heinous crime need to have hope. If they have hope they will do their time in a more responsible way. We know that you continue to work on the issues related to improving the criminal justice system. We thank you so much for your unwavering commitment to justice for all the people of our state.”
Services for Art will be held in Carroll on January 17. Details are included in his obituary: http://www.dahnandwoodhouse.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2888907&fh_id=11383
Michael Gartner, who used to be the editor of the Des Moines Register, won a Pulitzer Prize, was president of NBC, and owns the Iowa Cubs Baseball Team, has a weekly column in CityView (which he owns, also) shared his memories of Art. Here is what he has to say about his old-time friend:
No Restraints in Iowa DOC
Dueling op-ed articles in the Des Moines Register illustrate a festering problem in the Department of Corrections (DOC). Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners (FIWP), a group of dedicated volunteers whose mission is “to bring together and inform individuals and groups concerned about women in the Iowa correctional system and to act on their behalf”, chose to work towards codifying medically approved language pertaining to the use of restraints on pregnant women in a correctional environment. FIWP submitted a heartfelt plea to protect the lives of women and their unborn children. The response from the DOC was the type of reactive rant that many people write and eventually delete. It should never have been submitted for publication. So what happened to professional oversight in the DOC?
The FIWP op-ed showed the frustration felt by those lobbying for the proper use of restraints, especially after the Iowa Board of Corrections (IBOC) unanimously approved sponsoring the legislation. It was also extremely unfair to the legislators who introduced the legislation believing that the DOC lobbyists would help with the passage of the legislative bill, since its board approved it. Instead, the DOC lobbyists aggressively lobbied against the bill, demonstrating a complete lack of respect for the IBOC. When the contrary behavior by DOC staff was brought before the IBOC during the public comments part of a meeting, board members were speechless with shock at the news. One of the duties of the IBOC is to “report immediately to the governor any failure by the director of the department to carry out any of the policy decisions or directives of the board.” But does anyone, including the governor, have any control over the current culture within the DOC?
This, unfortunately, wasn’t an isolated incident. DOC staff wanted the use of a specific risk assessment in the Iowa Code as a means to control admissions. But instead of going through the IBOC whose duty is to “make recommendations from time to time to the governor and the general assembly”, the director, John Baldwin, decided to use the newly formed Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) to further his agenda. When it was discovered that PSAB did not have the authority to introduce legislation, Director Baldwin went to the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy to introduce the legislation. Why bypass the IBOC?
Another example of questionable practices by the DOC involved an incident of sexual harassment. A DOC contract lobbyist was told that a male employee involved in a particular incident had been fired, and the lobbyist lobbied accordingly. It came out at a subcommittee meeting, by the attorney for the victim – Roxanne Conlin – that the DOC employee had simply been reassigned. Trust is an important trait highly valued at the Iowa Capitol. The “ends justify the means” defense is unacceptable.
Another duty of the IBOC is to “recommend to the governor the names of individuals qualified for the position of director when a vacancy exists in the office”. Director Baldwin is retiring at the end of the month. Given the current culture for deceptive practices of circumventing the IBOC, it would have been prudent to do a national search for a new director. By limiting the selection to internal candidates, the IBOC is enabling the less than honest practices to continue. It would take a strong person of integrity to change the current culture. Is it a realistic goal for the IBOC and the governor to think that an internal candidate can generate the necessary return to truthfulness?
FIWP Awards Scholarships
The Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners [FIWP] recently awarded scholarships to eighteen women at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women [ICIW], which will enable each of the recipients to take two college credit classes in 2015. Enrolling in college level classes is a new experience for many of the scholarship recipients.
This year the FIWP is partnering with the Skylark Project, sponsored by the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which also awards college scholarships to the women at the ICIW. Through the cooperation of the Des Moines Area Community College, instructors will teach classes on-site at the ICIW for our scholarship students. Classes to be offered are Study Strategies, Western Civilization – Ancient to Early Modern, Survey of World Religions, and African American Literature.
The FIWP is very grateful for the many generous contributions to its Scholarship Fund, as are the women who benefit from it. For more information on how you can help, contact Rosemary at [email@example.com].
We are initiating a new column in this newsletter. Some Iowa inmates have begun writing to express their ideas, thoughts, concerns, etc. We are offering them an opportunity to submit an article to our newsletter on a trial basis. We are going to print one article per month, or per issue. All articles will be unedited by JRC. These inmates are tutored by Mike Cervantes of Cedar Rapids.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Justice Reform Consortium. Comments may be submitted to the author by sending them to [firstname.lastname@example.org]
We’ll begin with a submission by Simon C. Tunstall.
Between a Rock and a Hard Spot
St. Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said, “Justice without mercy is cruelty.” I would use the word ‘torture’ in place of ‘cruelty”
In the summer of 1991, a fellow lifer and I had a public conversation about Iowa’s commutation process. We were, and still are, both serving life sentences. By that time, he had already served 14 years. I was starting my fourth year. My lifer friend authored a well-written article titled, “Parole Lifers, but Give Recidivists the Death Penalty” in the May, 1991 edition of the Communicator newspaper.
He presented a creative alternative to the archaic approach of leaving lifers locked in prison for the rest of their lives. The essence of his article was: before the governor commutes a life sentence, the prisoner must sign an Appeals Waiver. This is a legal document which states a prisoner knowingly and intelligently agrees to give up his/her constitutional rights to appeal any felony conviction they are convicted of upon release from prison. According to my colleague, once the person is found guilty of the felony, the death penalty will be promptly administered. They would be killed. Murdered!
Conversely, this writer is unconditionally against premeditated murder of any kind. How can a person or government morally elevate itself about a convicted murderer if they do the same thing? Does it really matter if the murderous act is mechanically sucking a fetus out of the mother’s womb, releasing gas into a chamber, or the senseless killing during a moment of rage, jealousy or greed? I don’t think so. Murder is murder. Society is ever so quick to conveniently cloak its murderous intentions behind clever euphemisms.
Having a life sentence myself, I see my fellow lifer’s position as epitomizing the “between a rock and a hard spot” mindset. This doomed mentality is perpetuated by how few life sentences are commuted in Iowa. According to the Sentencing Project based in Washington, DC, Iowa is one of six states (along with the federal corrections system) where all life sentences given are without the possibility of parole. In the past quarter-century, Iowa’s governors have commuted only twelve life sentences. Governor Tom Vilsack granted seven commutations in his eight years in office. Governor Chet Culver commuted two over four years. Current Governor Terry Branstad has commuted only three life sentences in his more than 19-year tenure.
What are the circumstances in which Governor Branstad would commute a sentence? It appears that saving a prison staff (like the Anamosa inmate recently released after 38 years) or similar extraordinary circumstances are the only reason. However, reality dictates that lifers rarely get an opportunity to perform heroic deeds while doing their time. Living productively in prison for twenty-five or more years takes an extraordinary management of time and circumstances. Those serving life sentences help save the minds (lives), hearts and souls of countless persons during their imprisonment. Languishing away in Iowa’s prison are lifers who have served 25, 28, 38 and 51 years. Many of them are far from being the same person they were at the time of their arrest and conviction. Father Time loses no battles. Some of these lifers truly deserve another chance at freedom.
Iowa’s judicial system has in place safeguards to prevent the likes of Charles Manson or Jefferey Dahmer from ever being released from prison. And, not every lifer in prison committed anything remotely resembling a hideous crime. As a matter of fact, some never killed or kidnapped anyone. I know one man who has been incarcerated in Iowa for 27 years and he did not kill or kidnap anyone. His co-defendant testified at their joint criminal trial that he shot the victim in self-defense. This man was guilty of going into an apartment without the owner’s permission and for driving the car that transported his co-defendants to and from the crime scene. This man’s life sentence resulted from being convicted under the controversial – Felony Murder Rule. This meant he was held culpable for his co-defendant’s actions. Many judges, legal scholars and law professors consider the Felony Murder Rule to be unconstitutional.
I am not denouncing my fellow lifer’s creative proposal. Like many others, he desperately seeks to bring about a change to Iowa’s commutation statute. Hopefully this essay will serve as a catalyst to bring about a serious dialogue between Iowa’s erudite and sober minds to give rise to a saner and just alternative to the antiquated and costly policy presently in place.
In several states, governors regularly commute life sentences. A 2001 study by Stanford University showed that lifers are an excellent parole risk and have the lowest recidivism rate among all offenders. My ideas are predicated on the theory that love and mercy are more influential than hate and revenge. The time has arrived to formulate a commutation policy and process that will recognize the tremendous waste of simply warehousing lifers. Your comments (pro and con) are encouraged and welcomed.
https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/FU/545171.pdf This link will take you to the Iowa Legislative Services Agency – Fiscal Division Monthly Newsletter – filled with a plethora of reports on criminal justice matters in state government.
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Voices to be Heard is a support group for families and children of an incarcerated loved one. The group gathers to support and comfort those who know too well the grief that comes to those left behind when someone they love is incarcerated. The group meets on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at Wesley United Methodist Church, 800 East12th St. in Des Moines from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. The group brings in speakers, performs outreach, provide support groups and leadership classes. It is a good idea to contact Melissa ahead of time because the group provides dinner and a head count is preferred. Contact Melissa at 515/229-2645 for more information.
The next Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners meeting is at noon on Tues., January 20th at Wesley United Methodist Church, 800 East 12th in Des Moines.
MISSION: To bring together and inform individuals and groups concerned about women in the Iowa correctional system and to act on their behalf.
FIWP Mailing Address: Post Office Box 71272, Clive, IA 50325
Our January presenters will be Brian and/or Rita Carter, volunteer lobbyists for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Bring your lunch. The place and time are consistent throughout the year. The meetings are always held on the third Tuesday of the month, and always held from noon to 1:00 pm at Wesley United Methodist Church located at 800 East 12th Street in Des Moines. The location is a block west of East High School. Please contact Vi for more information.
Justice Reform Consortium member organizations: Iowa CURE & Iowa Coalition 4 Juvenile Justice; Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners; Trinity United Methodist Church; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Voices to be Heard; ACLU of Iowa; Social Action Committee, Des Moines Presbytery; Des Moines Chapter of WILPF; American Friends Service Committee; Plymouth Congregational Church, Board of Christian Social Action; Iowa Annual Conference, UMC; Iowa NOW and Des Moines NOW; National Association of Social Workers; Beacon of Life; Citizens for Undoing Racism-War on Drugs Task Force; IowaNebraska NAACP; Urban Dreams.
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