IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A nurse and a correctional officer at a prison housing some of Iowa's most dangerous offenders died on Tuesday after an inmate carried out an attack on staff members and other inmates, state officials said.
The attack happened at around 10:15 a.m. in the prison infirmary at the state penitentiary in the eastern Iowa city of Anamosa, according to a statement from the Iowa Department of Corrections.
The department said that it was still confirming details of what took place, and that state police were also investigating.
“What the department can confirm is that an inmate attacked multiple staff members and inmates in the prison’s infirmary. As a result of their injuries, a correctional nurse and correctional officer have died,” the department said in a statement.
The department said that additional security staff arrived after the attack and restrained the inmate, whose identity was not immediately released. Employees began attempting first aid on those injured until paramedics arrived.
No other details were immediately available, including whether any other staff or inmates were injured. Department spokesman Cord Overton said he anticipated releasing additional information later Tuesday or Wednesday.
The deaths are believed to be the first time an Iowa prison staff member has been killed by an inmate since 1969, when Iowa State Penitentiary officer Sam Reed was assaulted and stabbed by inmate Edward N. Clark. Inmates took a dozen staff members hostage during a 1981 riot at that prison but none were killed.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state was grieving the deaths of “two public servants who were attacked while on duty at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.”
“My prayers and deepest condolences are with their families, friends, and colleagues as they begin to cope with this senseless tragedy,” she said. “We will exhaust every available resource to deliver justice to those who committed this act and bring a sense of closure and peace to the victims’ families.”
The prison houses about 945 inmates in both maximum- and medium-security wings and has around 320 staff members. The inmates include those convicted of murder and other violent crimes.
More than 1,000 inmates and staff at the prison have tested positive for coronavirus in the last year, including during a major outbreak that briefly made Jones County one of the nation's worst hot spots.
Six have died of complications from the virus, the most at any prison in Iowa, according to department data. But as of Tuesday, no inmates or staff at the prison were known to be positive.
AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan, whose union represents Iowa correctional employees, said the workers were the first killed by an inmate since he started at the union in 1988. He said he was still gathering information about what happened.
“Sad day,” he told The Associated Press. “From my perspective, that is a failure of the system. I don’t know how or why or any particulars. But somebody failed because those two employees are not getting to go home this evening.”
Democratic Sen. Todd Taylor, ranking member of the justice system appropriations subcommittee, called the deaths a “horrible tragedy" and said his thoughts and prayers are with the victims' families, neighbors and coworkers.
“In addition to ensuring that justice is served, we must also ensure that state leaders address chronic understaffing and other systemic problems at our prisons before we have more deaths,” he said.
Inmates have routinely assaulted staff at Anamosa, including several incidents involving punches and kicks that caused injuries and required medical treatment in the last year.
Last month, an inmate struck an officer in the face and another responding officer injured his hand during a struggle with the inmate. Both officers were treated and released from a hospital. Last July, an inmate struck a captain several times with a pointed piece of aluminum.
In 2016, the late inmate Justin Kestner used a “crude piece of metal” to assault an officer at the prison, leaving him with severe facial contusions. That attack came one year after Kestner managed to escape from the highly-secure Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.