CLOSINGS: View Closings

Agency suspends Iowa prison guard over positive news article

The department that runs Iowa's prison system has suspended a guard for giving an interview to his small hometown newspaper for a positive story about his life and work helping inmates.

Posted: Apr 1, 2019 1:11 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The department that runs Iowa's prison system has suspended a guard for giving an interview to his small hometown newspaper for a positive story about his life and work helping inmates.

The guard is fighting the discipline, calling it a violation of his free speech rights. But regardless of whether he's successful, the case stands out as an example of a heavy-handed approach toward media relations in an era of dwindling local news.

The problems started when the Bloomfield Democrat, a weekly paper in southern Iowa, featured John Cox in a glowing front-page profile in December about how he approaches his job at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility.

Newspaper publisher Karen Spurgeon had been Cox's music teacher decades ago when he was in school. She bumped into him at an event, and was impressed that he had overcome challenges in his life to become a correctional officer with a passion for kindness and empathy.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is a good story.' He agreed to an interview," Spurgeon said.

The banner, front-page headline in December declared that Cox "inspires" and "teaches" inmates. "Remember, kindness is the gift that doesn't cost anything," Cox was quoted as saying.

Instead of celebrating the type of positive story that agencies rarely receive, prison leaders launched an investigation into Cox, who had not sought approval to speak to the newspaper.

A prison captain twice contacted the publisher to ask questions, including how the interview came about, who witnessed it and what sources she used.

"We just want to make sure that everything was done correctly for this interview and that's what I'm looking into," Capt. Mark Boatman told Spurgeon in a January call that she recorded.

He questioned her about facts that were deep in the 2,200-word article: Cox revealed the prison has a population of roughly 1,000 inmates and the most assaults in the state because of its dormitory-style living, yet officers do not carry firearms. All are matters of public record.

Nonetheless, the Iowa Department of Corrections issued a three-day paper suspension, saying Cox violated work rules that require authorization for media interviews and that all press contacts be reported immediately. The action does not affect his pay but could be used to justify more severe discipline in the future.

With the backing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers union, Cox has appealed the suspension, arguing it is an infringement on free speech.

"He got disciplined for talking to the newspaper. That is just insane," union president Danny Homan said. "What are we running in the state of Iowa, a dictatorial state where you can't say anything about the state? I guess that means that I get to be the one who says it. It's just wrong."

The appeal notes that Cox, 41, had no prior discipline and argues that a three-day suspension was too harsh.

A state attorney in February upheld the discipline as reasonable, saying the department "has a keen interest in determining when and how" information about its operations is released. Cox's appeal now goes to the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board.

Homan recalled one other instance in which an employee was disciplined after speaking to media, an Iowa Workforce Development worker who criticized the agency's director at a 2012 news conference. The union successfully pursued a free speech lawsuit on behalf of that employee, and Homan said the union would be willing to take that step for Cox if necessary.

Still, Homan said that such cases are why he advises public employees they should not speak to the press.

Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton said he wouldn't comment during Cox's appeal. He said any alleged violations of the department's staff conduct policies requires "fair and comprehensive investigation, and when necessary, disciplinary action."

Spurgeon said it never crossed her mind that Cox could be accused of acting inappropriately, and that she became concerned by Boatman's questions. "I began to think, wow, are we really trying to stifle free speech here?" she said.

Iowa Freedom of Information Council director Randy Evans, who writes a column that's published in the paper, said the state seems to be over-reacting.

"For the hometown newspaper to write a story about a local boy who made good in the world of government service, it hardly seems like it's going to bring down state government if he neglects to send an email to his supervisor," he said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 295001

Reported Deaths: 3535
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin624331107
Ramsey26238493
Anoka20851224
Dakota20527189
Stearns13245106
Washington13220111
St. Louis8141108
Scott798154
Wright720338
Olmsted639934
Sherburne552241
Clay473356
Carver443213
Blue Earth395813
Rice393335
Kandiyohi378719
Crow Wing344731
Nobles301429
Chisago29799
Otter Tail288820
Benton285847
Winona266629
Mower248523
Douglas242235
Polk238223
Morrison224027
Lyon206711
Beltrami202517
McLeod198511
Becker194015
Goodhue190628
Steele18336
Itasca179123
Isanti179016
Todd173912
Carlton170414
Nicollet154925
Freeborn14795
Mille Lacs145131
Le Sueur141111
Waseca135911
Cass133310
Brown131215
Pine12788
Meeker11638
Roseau11074
Hubbard107523
Martin105520
Wabasha9941
Redwood87518
Dodge8230
Chippewa8157
Watonwan8104
Cottonwood7942
Renville77322
Sibley7564
Wadena7476
Aitkin71729
Rock7149
Pipestone69618
Houston6534
Fillmore6510
Yellow Medicine61511
Pennington6137
Murray5623
Kanabec55713
Swift5448
Faribault5251
Pope5071
Clearwater4817
Stevens4813
Jackson4581
Marshall4508
Lake3916
Unassigned38659
Koochiching3675
Wilkin3605
Lac qui Parle3513
Lincoln3331
Norman3307
Big Stone2962
Mahnomen2834
Grant2566
Red Lake2033
Kittson2027
Traverse1391
Lake of the Woods941
Cook630

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 223783

Reported Deaths: 2330
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk33166333
Linn13991164
Scott1100384
Black Hawk10795134
Woodbury10255124
Johnson940036
Dubuque913491
Story674921
Dallas629057
Pottawattamie617069
Sioux366725
Webster357033
Cerro Gordo349644
Marshall346345
Clinton322840
Buena Vista302214
Muscatine282668
Des Moines282419
Warren276411
Plymouth270641
Wapello251571
Jones228413
Jasper214643
Marion202919
Lee199416
Carroll196422
Bremer192612
Henry18107
Crawford174115
Benton167418
Tama153340
Jackson143013
Delaware141021
Washington138214
Dickinson135810
Boone134811
Mahaska126127
Wright12226
Buchanan115410
Clay11504
Hardin114010
Page11144
Hamilton11009
Clayton10875
Harrison106629
Cedar106213
Calhoun10607
Kossuth10426
Floyd103916
Mills10297
Fayette102210
Lyon10188
Butler9916
Poweshiek98213
Winneshiek95812
Iowa93012
Winnebago91323
Hancock8547
Louisa84916
Grundy84611
Chickasaw8424
Sac8407
Cherokee8214
Cass80222
Allamakee79011
Appanoose77910
Mitchell7794
Humboldt7635
Shelby76111
Union7576
Emmet74924
Guthrie74115
Franklin73421
Jefferson7062
Madison6764
Palo Alto6474
Unassigned6470
Keokuk5777
Pocahontas5572
Howard5489
Greene5170
Osceola5171
Ida48113
Clarke4774
Taylor4603
Davis4548
Montgomery45011
Monroe43912
Adair4298
Monona4272
Fremont3553
Van Buren3545
Worth3540
Lucas3226
Decatur3160
Audubon2952
Wayne2957
Ringgold2082
Adams1652
Rochester
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 29°
Mason City
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 31°
Albert Lea
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 30°
Austin
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 33°
Charles City
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 32°
A Sunny and Mild Saturday Expected
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Sidelined in quarantine: Coach Fennelly talks about his experience away from the game

Image

Here Comes Santa Claus Drive-Thru

Image

Here Comes Santa Claus Drive-Thru

Image

Santa Claus Visits Rochester to Lead Drive-Thru Parade

Image

Aaron's Friday Evening Forecast

Image

Increased demand for real Christmas trees

Image

Santa visits Rochester for drive-thru parade

Image

Salvation Army needs bell ringers

Image

Search for man stalking women

Image

Downtown Alliance for shopping locally

Community Events