State Prisons are Addressing Racial Disparity in Iowa with Implicit Bias Training

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- It’s no secret that Iowa has one of the worst records for disproportionate incarceration of minorities in the nation. The Iowa Department of Corrections is working to change that with new mandatory implicit bias training. The idea to do racial bias training came from the court system.

Director of Iowa Department of Corrections, Beth Skinner, said the department sent a couple staff members to the court system’s training program as guinea pigs. After receiving such positive feedback, Skinner said they knew it had to be implemented in the Department of Corrections.

“We're always scanning the environment, scanning the literature, seeing what works and what our national partners are advising us on. So, we're always very open to find out what are the best practices and then to implement those,” Skinner said. “Does it take resources? Yes. But the issue is that important that we're willing to put those resources in there.”

So the Department of Corrections is currently collecting data, taking a look to see where racial disparities lie throughout the nine institutions in Iowa. This includes taking a look at discipline, access to treatment, and work assignments. There's also an advisory group in place to help recruit and retrain a diverse group of employees across the state. Skinner says in order to find the right solutions, the process has to start from the inside.

“I know that our staff are our most valuable asset here. They're doing the work they're passionate about a hand in addressing racial disparities,” Skinner said. “We're passionate about making sure people don't return and that communities are safer. We're going to spend the next couple years really working hard to make sure people don't return if people are successful and go back with success when they go back into their communities.”

Skinner says racial disparities don’t just happen in the Department of Corrections, but the whole criminal justice system. She explains how important it is for the different branches to work together to get to the root of the problem.

“It's really important that all these criminal justice actors or systems work together, and what may work in one criminal justice system may not work in the other but we have to have systematic change,” Skinner said.

The Department of Corrections will be releasing its data on racial disparity in Iowa’s criminal justice system sometime next month.

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