By Graham Gillette | Special Contributor to Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — John Baldwin, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, recently crowed in an email to colleagues at the Iowa Board of Parole about a reduction in the state’s prison population.
Shortly after Republican Gov. Terry Branstad took office, a record 9,009 people were locked up in Iowa’s prisons, according to Baldwin. Within 18 months, that number had fallen to 8,268 inmates — a more than 8 percent decrease.
Moving felons from prison to parole is good for Baldwin’s budget, but is it good for Iowa?
Baldwin credits the decline in prisoners to the now close working relationship between the department and parole board. Part of the prison boom in 2011 came when officials from both groups were more likely to butt heads in deciding whether to put prisoners on limited-release lock-up. That recently changed, and they agree in nine out of every 10 cases.
I’m all for cooperation, but one needs to closely examine what happens to released inmates when determining if such an agreement is in society’s best interests.
Fewer prisoners have meant an increase in parole caseloads among Iowa’s community-based correction districts, Baldwin disclosed in an email. This is causing “some problems,” yet “after years of declining parole populations, staff are adjusting to the larger and larger caseloads,” he wrote.
This may be, but those who work in halfway houses and other programs involved in transitioning prisoners to mainstream society are all too familiar with a shocking lack of resources, including a shortage of beds for new parolees. Those lucky enough to find beds are discovering it’s harder and harder to find permanent housing – they can’t leave, and options for new parolees are limited because of it.
Thanks in large part to federal stimulus dollars, Iowa added an additional 178 beds to community-based residential facilities during the past five years. The Legislature, however, failed to fund the expanded residential facilities. The new beds remain vacant. The prison gates are opened wider, but the prisoners have nowhere to go.
The millions of dollars spent to add capacity to residential facilities in Waterloo, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Ottumwa has done nothing to reduce Iowa’s waiting list for those in need of mental health, substance abuse treatment and other crucial programming. Beds, instead, sit unused because money was never appropriated.
A November report from the Iowa Legislative Services Agency shows by not funding the facilities costs will continue to mount, as purchased and installed equipment falls out of warranty and into disrepair.
Iowa Director of Management David Roederer told me Branstad’s budget will include 40 of the nearly 70 positions required to staff the residential facilities. This will help, but it’s only a start.
Baldwin, his colleagues at the parole board and those working in the field with felons who are in the process of leaving the system need to develop a comprehensive plan that has less to do with improving state budgets by reducing prison population and more to ensure the system is working the way it should.
Graham Gillette is a former staff member for state and national political candidates and has served as a senior government adviser. He lives in Des Moines where he works as a public affairs and communications consultant to corporate and nonprofit organizations. He began his career in Florida before moving to Washington, D.C. Gillette returned to Iowa in 1993.