The state is closing a 200-bed mental health center at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, only 10 years after spending $26 million to build the facility.
State Corrections Director John Baldwin said prisoners at the penitentiary's Clinical Care Unit will be transferred beginning this spring as part of an efficiency and security initiative. The prison will gradually shut down after a new prison opens about a mile away, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.
The new $117 million, 800-bed maximum-security prison will open in January 2014. Prisoners at the Clinical Care Unit, meanwhile, will be transferred to state prison mental health units in Clarinda and Coralville. The plans are part of the budget submitted last week by Gov. Terry Branstad.
Dr. Harbans Deol, the prison system's medical director, said the changes will bring better mental health services. He said two additional prison psychiatrists will be hired to help the state, which has more than 8,000 inmates. More than 40 percent have had a diagnosed psychiatric illness.
Others believe the move is not suitable for prisoners' treatment. Danny Homan, president of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called it a "terrible idea." The union represents Fort Madison correctional officers.
"This unit was created to deal with those types of inmates. Where they are proposing to move them I don't believe will be suitable for their treatment. I just believe it is the wrong thing to do," he told the newspaper.
Fort Madison houses 960 inmates and has about 430 staff members. Nearly 600 inmates and 80 minimum-security offenders will initially be moved into the new prison. Remaining inmates will be transferred to other prisons and programs in the state. The inmate population and staff hiring will then gradually increase, Baldwin said.
Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said he believes Branstad wants to control the number of union-represented state correctional officers.
"I don't understand what sense this makes," he said. "I think they are saving pennies and wasting dollars here. It seems to me they ought to be bringing people in there instead of taking them out of there. To me, this is the perfect place for folks with some of these mental health issues. I just think it is wrongheaded."
Baldwin said he won't rule out reopening the Clinical Care Unit in the future if there's a jump in prison population.The Clinical Care Unit is designed for inmates with a mental illness, a developmental disability or an active behavior disorder. It was approved in the late 1990s as part of a federal lawsuit, after a district judge criticized conditions in a maximum-security cell house at Fort Madison.