State officials are struggling to recruit more psychologists and psychiatrists to work in Iowa’s prisons. About 40% of the inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness and 30 percent of those inmates are classified as "seriously mentally ill." Iowa Department of Corrections director John Baldwin says it can sometimes take two years to find the right person for the job.
"You really have to find a person who is really committed to taking care of the most difficult population they’ll ever face and that takes a certain person," Baldwin says. "The people who are into it I’ve found in my career in corrections love it." The state prison system has slots for 23 psychiatrists and psychologists, but today there are openings at the state prisons in Clarinda, Fort Madison and Oakdale. To temporarily fill the gaps, Baldwin and his staff are hiring licensed mental health counselors and social workers.
"It’s easier to find those…because there are more social workers than there are psychiatrists and psychologists," Baldwin says. Monica Schmidt recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, but is not a doctor. She just took a counseling job in Cedar Rapids, but Schmidt grew up in a prison town in Wisconsin and she’d like to work in corrections some day — even though she doesn’t have that doctorate.
"I consider inmates to be an entirely underserved population," Schmidt says, "and I think that if we as a society want inmates, once they’ve been released, to become productive members of society we need to be sure that they have adequate psychological care whilst they’re in the correctional system." Dr. Bruce Sieleni, the mental health director for the Department of Corrections, says prison work is too daunting for some.
"It certainly is the clientele that keeps people away," he says. "…It’s much safer than people realize to work in corrections and that is sort of bad p.r., I guess. People assume it’s not safe." Sieleni says some applicants shy away from the heavy patient load and find the severity of the mental illnesses prisoners have too overwhelming.
State officials say few doctors want to live in the smaller communities where Iowa prisons are located and that’s yet another hurdle in recruiting the professional staff needed to properly counsel mentally-ill inmates.