State Ombudsman says complaints about prisons haven’t dropped off

DES MOINES — Complaints about state prisons and county jails continue to be at the top of the list for the State Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman.

She says from 2016 to 2017 those complaints increased by 24% — and she believes it’s a problem that has more to do with mental illness than laws. Hirschman says Bill Angrick the long-time Ombudsman that first brought her into the office first identified the trouble.

“He was touting before he retired seven or eight years ago that the prisons and jails are becoming the warehouse for the mentally ill. And I haven’t seen anything that’s changed,” she says. Hirschman says recent studies confirm the problem.

Hirschman says the statistics show more than 60% of the women in prison have some type of mental illness, while 40% of men also have some type of mental health diagnoses. She says her conversations with state and local corrections officials confirm this as she says they attributed many of the problems that arise to mentally ill inmates who are unwilling or unable to abide by rules and accept decisions. Hirschman says the law the governor recently signed to try and get more help for those with mental health issues is a good thing.

“I do think it is a big step in the right direction,” Hirschman says. “As with any program, I do think it has to have adequate funding in order for it to be successful.”

Hirschman says another observation she’s made is that prisons and jails are simply understaffed — and says her office has substantiated complaints about inadequate staffing levels at several jails and at least one of the state’s prisons. Hirschman says in her annual report that “inadequate funding and resources may foretell a horror story in the making” when it comes to problems in jails and prisons. She also says funding problems are not unique to prisons and jails as they received complaints last year about delays in autopsies, egregious hold times on the telephone, prolonged decisions on applications, lack of road repairs, a discontinuation of nursing-home visits, and antiquated computer systems, because of a lack of resources.

Hirschman encourages Iowans to continue reporting issues with state government and agencies. “If they are unhappy with their city, if they are unhappy with their county, if they are unhappy any aspect of state government. We can look at whether things are not only illegal — but whether the action of the agency was unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious or unfair,” according to Hirschman. She says they do not look at actions of the governor, legislature or supreme court. And she says it is important that you are sure to exhaust all avenues of trying to work out an issue before you contact here office as they will not take up a complaint if other remedies are still available to you.

“We do make exceptions for issues that appear really egregious — or emergent health and safety issues,” Hirschman says. Hirschman’s annual report is available online at the Ombudsman’s website. The report highlights some of the key complaints and cases they worked on in 2017.

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