Iowa’s prisons are recovering from a few tough years. Prison populations have been on the rise since 1999, and state funding for corrections was cut due to state budget problems, so a turnaround is welcome news to John Baldwin, Deputy Director in the Iowa Department of Corrections. They department received funding increases for each prison and corrections district this year. Baldwin says Corrections has been “hit pretty hard” by budget cuts, and finally is hiring more people where they need it most — correctional officers and menatl-health nurses. Baldwin says there are 1,409 offenders behind the prison fences who have a diagnosis of mental illness. “We are taking steps,” Baldwin says, “to address how we treat those people.” In fiscal year 2007, which they’re planning now, the prison system will bring on-line another unit at the Oakdale Medical and Classification Center, which will help handle mental-health cases. He says the governor’s also “bought” a proposal to open up a now-closed unit at Oakdale which will open next month and provide 25 mental-health beds. The budget cutbacks began about the time Iowa’s guard and reserve members were being called to active military duty, and it hit prisons especially hard. The Department of Corrections has the most employees of any state agency away in Iraq. They’re entitled to their jobs when they come back, Baldwin explains. When they were putting together budgets during the cutbacks, those vacant positions of the absent soldiers were cut, to avoid having to lay off more workers. When they come back, of course, the agency needs more jobs to put them in — and this year, the governor and legislature funded those. The state penitentiary at Fort Madison also got some more funding for mental-health staffers, as well as food, fuel and pharmacy bills for the prison. Other state prisons also got funding increases and will be able to hire more workers. Meantime, the Department of Corrections also reports this week that the prison population fell slightly in the last fiscal year, a net decline of 33 inmates statewide.
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