Problems in Prisons

Editor’s Note: The following appears in the UI Alumni Association’s June edition of Iowa Alumni Magazine.

Though the Iowa Department of Corrections has one of the country’s lowest recidivism rates, 30.8 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of discharge. Recidivism rates are even greater among the many prisoners with mental illness, who often lack sufficient treatment services in their home communities.

According to a 2003 U.S. Bureau of Justice study, mental illness affects 18 percent of Iowa’s total prison population. The crisis began in the 1950s, when the introduction of the first effective antipsychotic medicine led to the deinstitutionalization of America’s psychiatric hospitals. Without community mental health services available to support the massive transition, many patients landed in prison after refusing treatment for severe mental illnesses and becoming a threat to society. They had—and often continue to have—no other place to go.

UI sociology professor Karen Heimer says that tougher drug laws in the 1980s also led to an overcrowded prison system. Rather than emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation programs for substance abuse problems, she says, the nation’s punitive approach has led to fuller prisons and more tax dollars spent locking up inmates. Around 26 percent of Iowa inmates are in prison for drug-related charges, and 90 percent have past or present problems with drugs and alcohol. Altogether, Iowa holds more than 8,000 prisoners, with an average daily cost of $84.85 per inmate.

On a national level, Congress has proposed legislation to help recently released men and women find jobs, housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and support to strengthen their families, so that they don’t reoffend and tax an already burdened system. Heimer says Iowa’s programs, which include substance abuse treatment, education, and work release opportunities, are well-respected across the country.

As part of the rehabilitation process, inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Oakdale learn to contribute to society by running some of the prison’s everyday operations (including all the cooking, cleaning, painting, and gardening) and working for community causes. Recently, IMCC inmates raised more than $1,000 for breast cancer research, participated in a charity walk inside the prison, and filled more than 4,000 sandbags for the county during a spring flood.

“[Prison is] not like what you see on TV or in the movies,” says IMCC deputy warden Greg Ort. “It’s important for the community to know that offenders are not necessarily to be feared. They need support and assistance to be reintegrated and to be positive members of the community.”

To read more about the prisoners at the IMCC and how some use UI-guided choral singing help them cope with incarceration, click here.

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