Iowa is tied for seventh among states with the highest disparities in Black incarceration rates, according to new analysis from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Data released on September 27 show Black Iowans are about nine times more likely than whites to be in prison or jail, and Native Americans are about thirteen times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Iowa.
Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said in a statement that the findings “underscore the need for systemic reform.” She called on Iowa to “take action in every facet of the justice process.”
Approximately 17,000 Iowans are incarcerated, the Prison Policy Initiative’s Iowa fact sheet shows, roughly half in state prisons and most of the rest in county jails or federal prisons. As in many states, the per capita incarceration rate has grown over the past 40 years. But Iowa has long been among the worst for racial disparities in the criminal justice system, across various metrics.
The latest research includes this graphic showing ratios of Black and white incarceration rates in all 50 states. Iowa is part of a cluster of states, including neighboring Nebraska and Minnesota, where Blacks are about nine times more likely than whites to be in jail or prison.
Note that across the Midwest, racial disparities in the incarceration rate are higher than the national average (six times higher incarceration rate for Blacks than for whites). Although the percentage of the population in jails or prisons is generally higher across the South than in the Midwest, the racial disparities in the incarceration rate tend to be less pronounced in southern states.
Drilling into the Iowa data, the Prison Policy Initiative notes that while about 84 percent of Iowans are white, only 64 percent of people incarcerated are white. In contrast, Blacks comprise about 4 percent of Iowa’s population but 25 percent of the incarcerated population. The disparity is also extremely high for American Indians or Alaska Natives, who make up only 0.2 percent of Iowa’s population but about 2 percent of those in prison or jail.
Here’s another visualization of the data, which better reflects the massive disparities in the incarceration rates for Black Iowans and Native Americans. Latinos are also more likely to be incarcerated than white Iowans, though the ratio is smaller.
ACLU of Iowa executive director Mark Stringer said the new data “show once again that our state is failing to treat all Iowans equally under the law.” He noted, “The cards are stacked against Black Iowans in our legal system every step of the way” and cited a 2020 national study by the ACLU, which ranked Iowa “fifth-worst in the nation in racial disparities for marijuana arrests.”
The Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities will explore many of these challenges and potential solutions at its upcoming all-day event in Ankeny on November 3.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s previous research has highlighted “the high cost of being incarcerated in Iowa.” The new fact sheet lists key findings, with links to earlier reports:
- Jails in Iowa charge up to $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call, reaping profits for companies, while prisons charge $1.65 for a 15-minute call.
- Iowa suspended its $3 medical copays in prisons at the beginning of the pandemic for flu related medical visits — but should eliminate them entirely.
- Iowa prisons charge families up to a 32% fee to transfer money to an incarcerated loved one.
- People in Iowa prisons with more than $6 in their commissary account do not qualify for the $3.50 credit to purchase basic hygiene items and supplies for legal mail.
- People in Iowa prisons earn as little as 27¢ an hour for their work.
- Iowa charges up to 25¢ for an e-message to or from prison.
Iowa’s incarceration rate for women is close to the national average, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s data.