Keeping the peace in prison

Critical incidents in Iowa declining, but mental health concerns remain

Vanessa Miller
Published: January 31 2013 | 9:45 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:46 am in

The total number of critical incidents inside Iowa’s prisons appears to be declining, including Eastern Iowa institutions in Coralville and Anamosa.

But a few prisons, like Coralville’s Iowa Medical and Classification Center, still reported hundreds of critical incidents in the 2012 budget year, according to Iowa Department of Corrections statistics.

Higher rates, according to prison officials, are the result of differences in inmate populations and the circumstances under which they are being held.

And even though the state’s Coralville prison reported more critical incidents in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 budget years than any other institution in the state, officials say rates are dropping.

“In the last couple of years, we have invested in training all of our staff on mental health issues and finding successful ways of approaching offenders with mental health issues,” said Greg Ort, deputy warden for the Iowa Medical and Classification Center. “We have talked more about what’s happening with offenders because that changes how the staff approaches and deals with those personality types.”

The Coralville prison recorded 704 critical incidents in the 2010 budget year, 801 incidents in 2011 and 441 in 2012. The facility with the next highest count was the Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security facility that houses about the same number of people as Coralville’s prison.

The state penitentiary had 246 critical incidents in both the 2010 and 2011 budget years, and 255 in 2012. Other prisons that are similar in size, like the Anamosa State Penitentiary, counted 92 incidents in the 2012 budget year. The Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, which has one of the largest populations in the state, reported just 58 incidents in 2012.

But, Ort said, “You can’t compare us to any other institutions.”

The Iowa Medical and Classification Center — per its name — handles acutely mentally ill patients and newly sentenced inmates waiting to be assigned to a permanent facility.

“We have 500 to 550 inmates in for the reception process every day who are new to prison and to a structured environment of this type,” Ort said. “Sometimes, they can get disruptive and cranky. If assistance is needed or we have to de-escalate a situation, we would have to indicate that there was a disruption on a critical incident report.”

The acutely mentally ill patients at the Coralville prison can prompt incident reports just by being disruptive, yelling or refusing to leave a cell.

“We can have one or two people who are psychotic and can generate critical incidents on a daily basis,” Ort said. “It just takes one or two guys to cause the numbers to go up.”

Types of incidents

Critical incidents are classified into two categories. Priority one incidents are more serious and include assaults causing injury, sexual assaults and deaths. Priority two incidents are less serious and can include disruptive behavior, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.

Ort said that category also can include medical issues, and many of its critical incidents are the minor type. In the 2012 budget year, for example, 441 of its incidents were classified as priority two, and just 30 were grouped into the priority one category.

“If a guy gets in the shower and refuses to come out, and we try to de-escalate the situation ... it still can generate a critical incident report,” Ort said.

Correctional officers at the Coralville prison recently underwent training on how to work with the mentally ill and how to de-escalate a situation without using force, Ort said

“It takes a combination of talents and skills to manage a facility of this type,” he said. “We need people who can react physically and are mentally sharp and have a variety of skills and talents.”

Marcy Stroud has been the director for the Coralville prison’s forensic psychiatric hospital for two years and said she’s never been involved in an encounter classified as a critical incident. Still, she said, as a staff member who daily encounters inmates, she’s aware of the prison’s unique population.

“We do have a lot of situations that other facilities don’t have,” she said. “It doesn’t make me nervous, but I’m always aware of my surroundings and keeping myself safe.”

How to reduce it?

Statewide, the number of critical incidents fell from 1,452 in the 2011 budget year to 1,205 in the most recent budget year. Most of those — 1,061 — were less serious in nature. But there were 23 offender-on-offender assaults causing serious injury, 57 offender-on-staff assaults — including three causing serious injuries — and six offender-on-offender sexual assaults.

Benjamin Steiner, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has studied the issue of violence in prisons nationally and said there is no national model for curbing the problem.

“There is a lot of research on what the influences of violence are, but not a lot of research on how to reduce it,” he said.

Inmates more likely to become violent in a prison setting, he said, include younger inmates with a history of anti-social behavior, those who have used drugs in the past and gang members. At the facility level, Steiner said, studies are less clear on what causes violence.

He said a prison’s population type absolutely can play a role in the level and amount of violence. Although studies are hard to come by because of privacy issues, mentally ill inmates are believed to be more volatile, he said, and thus facilities with more mentally ill inmates can have higher incident rates.

“There is a link between mental illness and violence,” Steiner said. “That is a fact of mental illness these days, and it’s a fact that the mentally ill are being placed in these facilities. The staff is dealing with them, and it does create some problems sometimes.”

Steiner said there are resource issues, too. Overcrowding can put additional stress on inmates and the prisons they’re living in, he said.

According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, the total capacity at its nine prisons sits at 7,209, while its population count on Wednesday was at 8,196. That’s an overcrowding rate of 13.69 percent. The Coralville prison’s capacity, according to the Department of Corrections, is 585, while its current population is 986.

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