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Corrections superintendent says 22 percent of inmates have severe mental health issues

Chamber committee hosts third legislative briefing
Mar 24, 2014
Photo by: Brooks Taylor Mt. Pleasant Mayor Steve Brimhall, left, speaks with State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, prior to Saturday’s legislative briefing in the International Room of the Chadwick Library on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College.


Mt. Pleasant News

Ron Mullen, superintendent of the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Institute, told those attending Saturday’s legislative briefing at Chadwick Library on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College that 22 percent of the approximately 8,200 inmates in Iowa’s penal system have severe mental health issues.

“The (Iowa) Department of Corrections didn’t decide it wanted to be the largest mental-health services provider in the state,” Mullen reflected.

Topic of the third briefing, sponsored by the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance’s Legislative Services Committee, focused on mental health and corrections. And as Mullen pointed out, the two go hand-in-hand.

If there was one theme hammered home, it was an on-going message — there is not enough room at the inn for Iowans suffering from various forms of mental illnesses.

Mullen said sometimes inmates and mental health can be mistaken. “Do we have a mentally ill person who does criminal acts or a criminal who is mentally ill?

Eventually, most inmates are released over time and that leads to another concern — where do they go and will they continue to receive treatment.

“One of the real problems is transitioning them back into the community, you have to make sure they have services and resources available,” continued Mullen. “Soon, there will be a problem for the Department of Corrections. Twenty-seven men and three women who are severely mentally ill will be soon coming out of the system with nowhere to go and they can’t function on their own. What do you do with them?

“The barriers we are facing,” Mullen continued, “are medication, non-compliance or the medication does not work. If the person has a history of walking away or has limited social skills, we have a hard time finding placement for them. So what’s driving the bus — mental illness or criminality? We have this group of people who have their behavior driven by mental illness.”

Kristin Helm, director of mental health services in southeast Iowa for Hillcrest Family Services, echoed Mullen’s remarks regarding the lack of services for those suffering from mental illness.

“There is a lack of bed availability for people who need higher care,” Helm pointed out. “There are not a lot of specialized caregivers. We constantly have to answer the question — ‘How can we serve people to the best of our abilities on an out-patient basis?’ The need always exceeds the availability.”

Sarah Berndt, Henry County Central Point of Coordination, agreed. “Availability in this county is very limited. Some have to go a distance to get service. We want to get them services without having to travel great distances.”

Mullen said it is not unusual for the mental health component of the local correctional institute to have to provide services to someone in extreme western Iowa. “We seldom have a bed, but how can we manage this to provide services (to patients) closer to home. It’s a numbers game. It is unfortunate some people have to travel so far.”

State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, highly regarded for his work in the legislature in the field of mental health, said there is a need for crisis intervention statewide. “As I look at our region, it would be really great if we had access to crisis intervention regionwide. How can we move it so every county has access?”

Berndt replied that crisis intervention has been an emphasis in recent meetings of mental-health officials.

The Washington County Hospital has began a pilot program for crisis intervention and Berndt said that discussions are under way to expand the program to the Henry County Health Center.

“Jefferson County is working on a community-based crisis center,” Berndt reported. “Des Moines, Henry and Lee counties are working with Hope Haven to establish a community-based program where people can eventually transition somewhere else. We have some things going and should be launching soon. There are some great opportunities.”

Helm said there is a need for crisis intervention in the area seven to 11 times a week.

The Mt. Pleasant Correctional Institute has 200 beds for people with special needs, Mullen said, but there is a need in southeast Iowa for 600 beds in southeast Iowa for acutely mentally ill patients.

“Non-compliant clients are a common occurrence,” Mullen noted. “The client has to take some responsibility or they will end up in the system. There has been a lack of resources, but I think that is changing.”

In continuing discussion, Heaton asked Mullen how much of the prison population should not be incarcerated. Mullen said that was difficult to determine but said his guesstimate would be 25 percent.

The correctional institute superintendent said things are improving. “We have a close collaboration with the board of parole now. That wasn’t the case until about two years ago and our relationship with mental-health providers is continuing to improve.”

State Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mt. Pleasant, a 27-year employee of the Iowa Correctional Institute in Ft. Madison, said he was disappointed when the mental health division of the Ft. Madison prison was closed.

“I worked 27 years in the prison and when I started in Ft. Madison, it was exactly that (prison). We had 160 severely mentally ill in a care unit in Ft. Madison. I was very disappointed that we didn’t force that to stay open. It was a mistake to close it. Those people are in the general public now. They are not criminals, but mentally ill. However, if they are out in the general public, they will become criminals,” he predicted.

Taylor said there is preventative medicine for mental-health issues, that being early childhood education. “I think early childhood education is very important, if we can get those people the help they need early, the won’t end up in prison.

“Everybody wants a tax cut,” Taylor continued, “but we need services. If we want to dig out of the hole, we have to start now. We need more counselors (in the education system) and special needs teachers. I think it all boils down to education.”

Heaton echoed Taylor’s thoughts. “Early intervention is the best way,” Heaton said. “If we get there early, it is much more beneficial. I feel we are on our way (to better mental-health services).”

One more legislative briefing, a legislature wrap-up, is on the docket. The date for the briefing will be announced at a later date.





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