NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa corrections officer fired for using his work computer to Photoshop a “huge volume” of images of co-workers and mentally ill patients said Thursday that he is appealing his termination, which had also prompted discipline against several other employees for computer misuse.
John Aaron Powers, 29, was fired Sept. 30 from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville for improperly accessing photos of patients, inmates and employees from internal databases and using a software program to put their faces on the bodies of celebrities, animals and others. His termination notice also said that he visited websites that were of a sexual nature during work hours, adding that he committed “numerous violations” of state computer policies.
An investigation led to a 10-day suspension of another corrections officer who made similar images of workers, public records show. At least four other employees — another officer who traded emails with Powers, two nurses and a lieutenant — have also since resigned, Powers said in an exclusive interview Thursday.
Lt. Vicki Garrett, who led the investigation, testified at a December hearing in Powers' unsuccessful appeal for unemployment benefits that other staff members have been terminated and resigned under pressure “after this investigation of Mr. Powers.”
“Once they realized that others were involved, they felt the first one had to be fired,” Powers said. “But I don't see how I can be fired without progressive discipline.”
Corrections officials had no immediate comment.
Powers worked at a psychiatric hospital in the prison for mentally ill offenders who are incompetent to stand trial or deemed too dangerous to be released after completing sentences. He said the images were a good-natured effort to bring humor to a dreary environment but admitted that the practice “got out of hand.”
He said that patients and co-workers thought the photos were funny and routinely requested specific images.
Some of the photos featured pictures of patients in a “Star Wars” parody or depicted as Pakistani politicians. Others showed a lieutenant's face on the body of singer Meatloaf, a Republican colleague embracing President Barack Obama at a campaign rally and Powers' face on actor Channing Tatum's body.
Garrett testified that Powers was fired instead of suspended because his images included photos of patients and inmates taken from an internal database, violating confidentiality rules. That was not the case with corrections officer Jennifer Laing, who limited her images to employees and was given a 10-day suspension, according to testimony. Laing was not working Thursday and didn't immediately return an email seeking comment.
Powers said that supervisors had long been aware of the photos, which one patient hung over his bed. He said that he believes he should have been suspended but that his termination after seven years at the prison was unfair. With the backing of his union, he is appealing his termination through arbitration.
“The last six months have been the worst six months of my life,” he said. “I loved my job.”
The Iowa Department of Corrections suspended Powers in August after a patient said that he was upset and humiliated over two photos Powers made of him. One showed the patient's face on the body of an obese person holding a beer can and another pictured him as a soldier marrying an unattractive bride.
Powers said the patient lied about being offended to get him in trouble. Powers said he and the patient were once close but had feuded the previous day after the patient ignored his advice and started a fight with another patient.
Prison employees acknowledged that the patient had earlier found humor in the pictures. But they said it was an abuse to include any mentally ill patients in the photos because they may not have the capacity to understand them.
“The line really got crossed,” hospital director Marcy Stroud testified at the December hearing.
The investigation also found that Powers had visited websites containing photos of models and actresses at work, often emailing links to his home account.
State policies prohibit employees from looking at non-work-related websites.
Powers said that he never neglected his duties to make photos or visit inappropriate websites. He said he would do so quickly and during slow times, such as when the patients were sleeping.
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