IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An inmate died after he was beaten by a fellow prisoner at Iowa's maximum-security penitentiary in what's believed to be the first homicide at an Iowa prison since 2010 and one that prompted a union to accuse the state of covering up safety lapses.
The deadly attack at the Iowa State Penitentiary in October continued despite a correctional officer's commands for the assailant to stop, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law.
The records reveal for the first time the beating of inmate Michael Whitworth, 46, who died Oct. 30. A union representing prison employees had accused the Department of Corrections of trying to hide news of the homicide by waiting to announce it until Election Day and saying it resulted from "an incident."
Inmate Lha Southideth-Whiten, 35, punched an unconscious Whitworth 30 times in the head and face on Oct. 20, according to records. It's unclear what prompted the altercation, which was captured on surveillance video.
A prison judge found Southideth-Whiten was responsible for the death and ordered the maximum discipline — 180 of disciplinary detention and stripping him of 180 days of earned time. A Lee County prosecutor says he soon plans to make a decision on whether to criminally charge Southideth-Whiten.
Deputy Warden Mark Roberts rejected Southideth-Whiten's appeal seeking a lighter penalty.
"You were involved in a serious situation that resulted in the loss of life based on your behavior," Roberts wrote Dec. 10.
Federal statistics show that Iowa historically has been near the bottom of the national list for homicides of state prisoners, reporting only one between 2001 and 2014.
The fight began in the lunchroom of the Iowa Prison Industries program, which is inside the year-old prison in Fort Madison that houses the state's most dangerous male offenders.
Whitworth, who was serving life for the 2005 kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman, threw the first punches but Southideth-Whiten punched back, which made Whitworth fall, hit his head on the ground and lose consciousness. Southideth-Whiten, who's serving a 45-year sentence for an armed robbery, stood over Whitworth and punched him, refusing the correctional officer's orders to stop.
Whitworth had severe facial and head injuries and was taken to a hospital before being airlifted to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, where he died 10 days later.
An autopsy determined that Whitworth died from blunt force injuries to the head and ruled the death a homicide, Johnson County Medical Examiner administrator Mike Hensch said, adding the report was being mailed to state officials Wednesday.
Once the Department of Corrections receives the report, a review committee will meet to investigate the circumstances of Whitworth's death and recommend any remedial action, spokesman Fred Scaletta said.
The department didn't announce Whitworth's death until Nov. 8, saying that he'd been hospitalized "due to an incident."
The timing of the announcement was an attempt to have it "drowned out by political coverage," according to AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan, whose union represents correctional officers. He has routinely argued that more officers are needed to ensure safety, pointing to assaults and fights that have injured inmates and officers, such as incidents in Anamosa and Fort Madison in October.
Gov. Terry Branstad has disagreed, noting that the inmate population has declined since 2011.
A lawsuit brought by three inmates who were attacked by a fellow prisoner with a chisel and seriously injured in 2010 at the old Fort Madison prison was dismissed in November. The judge said the assault wasn't the result of prison staff leaving them unsupervised for four minutes but rather the assailant's "twisted thinking."
Des Moines attorney Jeffrey Lipman, who represented the inmates, noted that Whitworth's death occurred in a similar industrial program at the new prison.
"The biggest problem they seem to have down there is a lack of staff," he said.
Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter: @rjfoley