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Iowa Prison Reform

posted on January 18, 2008 at 2:22 PM

Now, community-based corrections would be expanded under a proposal before lawmakers this session. Also proposed is a new prison at Fort Madison and expansions at several other correctional institutions. All totaled the price tag for the new plans would be more than $240 million.

Spearheading the legislative effort to expand corrections is Representative Todd Taylor, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids. He is co chair of a prison study task force that reviewed proposals from a consulting firm that spent two years examining Iowa's corrections to determine future needs.

Also with us is Carlos Jayne, a long-time advocate for prison reform. Following his retirement from the United Methodist church in 2000, Reverend Jayne founded the Justice Reform Consortium. The coalition includes nearly 20 groups, including the American Friends Service committee, Iowa United Methodist church, and the ACLU.

Yeager: Gentlemen, welcome. First reactions to the piece, what do you think, Representative Taylor, about the state of our corrections?

Taylor: Well, one of the things with the offender we just talked about, Graham, it sounds like the community-based system did work for him and can work. It took a little while but at least it’s an opportunity for him to assimilate back in the community, hopefully for a long time. We want to make sure that program continues on and works.

Yeager: We’ll talk a little bit about that, but I want to get your reaction as well.

Jayne: It shows that that’s the part of the system that really works. That’s what gets people back into society. It might be slow going sometimes, but the one-on-one stuff he was talking about is really what works and gets people out and helps to keep them out.

Yeager: When did we realize that this was the direction we need to go? I mean we’ve had people incarcerated for decades for centuries. Why all of a sudden is now community based gaining so much popularity?

Jayne: I think in Iowa it’s been a long time. We had community-based corrections a long time before other states did. It just that we at one time kind of tripped up and instead of putting them in – more people into community-based corrections, we started putting more people in prison. As the war on drugs and the get-tough-on-crime stuff started taking over, then it was a back seat that community-based corrections starting taking.

Yeager: That’s mandatory minimum, something we’ll get into a little bit later. But to continue on the community-based, Mr. Graham has been in ten times. He says this is the time; he’s 38. We hear, I think, his story way too often. Is there a chance that this -- What’s to say that this is finally going to work for him, and why do we think it’s not or it is?

Taylor: That’s actually probably an unanswerable question. But hopefully we can present opportunities for him with the one-on-one counseling or the job coach outside or maybe some substance abuse treatment, beyond his incarceration – beyond his time in the facility to make it work.

Yeager: Well, if it doesn’t work, though, are we just wasting out state money trying to get somebody through the system 12, 15, 20 times?

Taylor: I think most of the time maybe it does work. But it does kind of show the stranglehold that maybe drugs and addiction can have on people, and if we address that earlier or address it while they’re maybe in the institution, then we can get a handle on it and make it more likely to be successful.

Jayne: Some of the problem has been the funding on the substance abuse treatment, because in order to make the funding go further, some of the treatment programs have been narrowed down shorter periods of time. What it shows is that some people have to be in the treatment programs for a longer period of time in order for it to work. He may be an example of one of those cases where he had too short of a time and he went back in several times.

Yeager: And it could be intense for a few days, but maybe he needed two, three weeks, not two, three days.

Jayne: Sometimes you need months.

Taylor: And everyone is going to be different, too, on that.

Yeager: Well and how do you evaluate on how do you decide which is best for each person? How do you decide which inmate -- I mean I know there’s review when an inmate goes in. How do they decide what’s going to be the best course of action?

Taylor: Well, that review is very important. Part of it is we’ve developed this thing called therapeutic communities. In a couple of places in our institutions, we have kind of a community-based approach to these things where you talk to folks and you say: what’s going to work for you; what was your background; what did you get involved in? And then they individually develop a plan for that person. If we can carry that to the community-based and then on to the outside, they’ll be much more likely to be successful. So we try to do -- It’s best practices.

Jayne: I think the Department of Corrections has now moved toward analyzing people when they come into the system as to what they need. And supposedly, if it ever gets all the way done, it will be a whole trajectory all the way out. Now, it’s going to take some time. What it’s really going to take is money, and that’s the thing that Todd has to provide through his committee.

Yeager: It’s always the magic thing – the magical answer for everything. How much of a direction, how much of an expansion on community-based are we going to see, as opposed to brick and mortar maybe redoing a Fort Madison penitentiary? Are we going to see a big expansion?

Taylor: Well, one thing --

Yeager: How big, I should say.

Taylor: Sure. In our community-based districts around the state, we are going to target certain ones for expansion right now and then stair step it. It will be over a period of time. So in this year, this summer and fall, we did an interim study committee, and I was able to chair that – co chair that. And we did make some recommendations that include replacing the prison at Fort Madison, as well as expanding these community-based corrections in the – make sure I get it right – in the first and the fifth. We’re going to focus on some therapeutic communities the best practices pieces that we know are very effective, so we’re going to try to expand it that way. There is a bricks and mortar element too.

Yeager: Well, Fort Madison prison is a very old structure, or one of the oldest west of the Mississippi, and it has some needs. We had some inmates escape. There’s always inmates -- I shouldn’t there’s always inmates escape, but there are cases of escape. Fixing our security, is that going to be a direction that it looks like the legislature may have to go? Or how do you feel like the committee is going to go? Yes, you have your study group recommendations, but how do you convince your fellow lawmakers that that’s the direction you need to go?

Taylor: Excellent question. Let me answer it this way. The recommendations from the interim committee basically said here’s the thesis. We want the legislature to consider several things before they consider expanding capacity, and some of those things are what we’ve been talking about: the community-based corrections; the drug courts; other alternatives to long-term incarceration, mental health treatment, mental health counseling, and focus on that; as well as education.

A lot of our inmates don’t have GEDs; they don’t have a diploma. And if we focus on that while they’re in our system, they’re much less likely to come back to our system. These best practices, the therapeutic communities, if we focus on those, the interim committee recommends that’s what we should fund and develop first before we do expansion of capacity.

And then, of course, the Fort Madison piece is the one with the biggest price tag. But that is a -- basically part of the prison there that needs to be replaced. There’s a big piece of it that doesn’t need to be replaced. There’s a brand-new CCU unit out front. But we already own some land north of the bluff there in Fort Madison.

Parts of the prison that you talked about that are as old as before Iowa was a state, they are there but they’re used as closets. They’re not places where we house inmates anymore. They’re really old pieces. So a lot of what we would be doing is replacing that facility.

Jayne: Well, you know -- I’m having a hard time in this whole thing getting my hands around why we’re talking about a $240-million project when Todd is talking about how we need to do some of these things first, one of which he didn’t mention, but which he only – is the classification of prisoners.

We have an old classification system, which needs to be redone to show us how many maximum security beds we need, how many medium, how many minimum, and how many community-based corrections. That’s not done yet. It won’t start maybe until April, and then they can start figuring out how many of them we need all around the state. I don’t want to move ahead on construction of anything until – especially of additional beds, until we figure out what the whole formula is going to show what our needs are.

And that’s what I’m worried about, because some people might want to just fix Fort Madison. I think if you’re going to talk about which prison to fix first, Fort Madison or the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, I think it ought to be the one for the women.

Taylor: The ICIW is Mitchellville, and that’s where all of our female inmates are. Basically we have a system where once you go – you’re adjudged to go to jail, you go from the courthouse to Oakdale now. That’s our intake system. Well, if you’re a woman, guess what, we’re going to send you to Mitchellville. If you’re a man, it goes to various different – based on your classification and that’s what he’s talking about.

So we do need to do the system wide classification review: Is this working? But for women why don’t we just have our intake system at Mitchellville? To do that we’re going to need to demolish a building that’s there. Very dilapidated. Very old. Not functional for the expansion that we would have. And it’s either called a dormitory if it’s minimum or a cell block if it’s maximum. We have it all there. That’s $50 million of that $240- you talk about.

Yeager: You’re not even talking about reclassification for any mental ill patients or inmates.

Jayne: They’d all be part of that.

Yeager: They’d be part of it but, I mean, I’ve had one person tell me inside to say if we reclassify, we’re not going to rebuild anything. A lot of inmates are mentally ill and don’t belong in the system. How do you fix that or how do you address that? Is that part of that classification system at the front that you make?

Jayne: Well, one of the things – Actually, if you started working on your mental health problems that we have in Iowa, if you did something about that in the beginning, we would also preclude the need to have more beds because a lot of these people would be able to be treated in the community. The courts would be able to say, well, this guy committed the crime because of his mental illness, so he should go to this facility over there. Well, the facility is not there or the program isn’t there, so onward to prison.

Yeager: Community-based across the board.

Jayne: That has to be part of the whole plan. Of course, they recommended that – the report recommended that as well.

Taylor: One thing not to lose sight of: If you were a violent offender and you were a menace to society, we will find a place for you and lock you up. But the community-based program really works for those, a lot of times, property crimes -- or they’re crimes against property and not crimes against people. A lot of times they’re nonviolent. The offender may be – or the person may be high on drugs and then they commit the crime; so was it the burglary that they did or was it the drugs that started it?

But you can address some of those -- That may be more of a violent – so bad example. But the idea that there are many, many inmates in our system, over 8,800 today, and 600 of them are not going to get out. There are about 600 lifers in there. And so of those, the remainder, all of them are going to get out at some point. And part of the community-based system also is our stair step back into the community, so that’s why we want to make sure that we’re identifying those problems.

Yeager: Sure. Under thirty seconds, what are your top priorities in lobbying this session for this issue?

Jayne: My top priorities are to say that if we’re going to do any institutional rebuilding that ICIW ought to get the priority, but that the community-based corrections gets the priority for everything because that would reduce the numbers that are waiting to go to the community.

Yeager: Very good. Carlos Jayne, Representative Todd Taylor, gentlemen, thank you. Good discussion as always. We’ll talk to you later.

Tags: Iowa prisons reform