The facts of life in Iowa’s prisons
By Douglas Burns
the last three decades, Iowa’s prison population
has skyrocketed — from a total of 2,276 inmates
in 1980 to 8,492 last Thursday, according to
the Iowa Department of Corrections.
That’s a 273 percent jump.
Is this reflective of an Iowa that’s a more
frightening place — or looking at it the other
way, a safer place — with three times as many
people behind bars?
“I have about half the people when I speak say
they feel no different than they did 25 years
ago,” said Iowa Department of Corrections Director
John Baldwin in an interview. “About half the
people say, ‘I feel more threatened.’ ”
The population at Iowa’s nine prisons reached
an all-time high of 9,009 last April, the Iowa
Department of Human Rights reports.
What about the future?
Iowa’s prison population is expected to increase
from 8,787 on June 30, 2011 to 11,300 on that
same day in 2021 — a 29 percent increase, according
to the Human Rights Department’s Division of
Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.
It costs about $30,000 annually to house an
Iowa prison inmate, Baldwin said.
gothic Anamosa State Penitentiary has roots
dating back to the 19th century.
By June 30, Iowa’s prison population is expected
to exceed official capacity by about 1,615 inmates.
Women’s facilities are expected to hold about
115 more inmates than the official capacity,
and men’s prisons are expected to hold 1,500
Bottom line: At the end of fiscal year 2012,
the men’s prison population is projected to
be 23 percent above capacity.
The opening of a new prison at Fort Madison
in 2014 is likely to improve that situation,
as there will be an addition of 120 beds.
There’s no great secret behind the increase
in the prison population.
In separate interviews, Baldwin and Dr. Paul
Stageberg, administrator of the Human Rights
Department’s criminal division, cited three
primary reasons: the war on drugs, mandatory
sentencing and stronger provisions on sex crimes.
The percent of inmates serving sentences for
drug crimes — as their major offense — increased
from 2 percent in 1988 to 23 percent in 2011.
The number of admissions to the Iowa Department
of Corrections prison system for drugs stood
at 880 in fiscal year 2011. During that period
the next highest figure for admission based
on a crime was for assault — 479. By way of
comparison, during fiscal year 2011, 40 people
came into Iowa’s prisons for murder or manslaughter,
just 25 were incarcerated for arson and 69 for
“Iowa should continue examining drug offenders
and drug sentences to ensure that those committed
to prison for drug offenses could not be handled
more effectively elsewhere or, perhaps, handled
in prison for shorter periods of time,” The
Iowa Department of Human Rights recommends in
its Fiscal Year 2011 to 2021 Iowa Prison Population
According to that report, the prison population
hike since 1990 came largely as a result of
the Midwest methamphetamine epidemic — which
has stabilized somewhat as law enforcement has
effectively combated meth.
The drug-conviction numbers reveal a system
in need of reform, said Art Neu, a former Iowa
Republican lieutenant governor and 12-year member
of the Iowa Board of Corrections.
“I don’t think people ought to be going to the
penitentiary for marijuana,” Neu said. “I’d
either decriminalize, it or I’d reduce it to
some kind of a serious misdemeanor. I wouldn’t
send anybody to one of our nine prisons on a
Neu said Iowa should overhaul the state criminal
code and examine all mandatory sentences “and
in most cases reduce them.”
Marijuana may be the most frequently used illicit
drug in Iowa, but meth-related offenses are
the most likely to land people in prison, Stageberg
Of drug offenders admitted to prison during
fiscal year 2011, 47 percent had offenses related
to meth, Stageberg’s report says.
According to Stageberg, another factor in the
drug numbers is the connection between the historically
high rates of African-American incarceration
in Iowa and drugs.
“As admissions for methamphetamines rose from
the 1990s through 2004, the percentage of white
drug admissions also rose, as meth tends to
be a ‘white’ drug,” Stageberg said in his report.
“As meth admissions dropped, however, there
was a tendency for cocaine-related admissions
— who are principally ‘black’ — to increase.”
African-American inmates in the state’s system
was at 22.2 percent in 1991. Twenty years later,
the figure stood at 25.1 percent.
Iowa’s population is 2.9 percent African-American
according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Stageberg’s report forecasts that the African-American
percentage of the prison population will climb
to 27.5 percent “in the coming years.”
Baldwin said the Iowa Department of Correction
is working with community-based programs in
an attempt to reduce the number of African-Americans
in Iowa prisons by preventing crimes from occurring.
“We are working very hard particularly in Waterloo
and Des Moines,” he said.
Education programs are key in this regard, Baldwin
In 1991, the percentage of Native American,
Latino and Asian inmates (combined) in Iowa’s
prisons was 3 percent. That number tripled to
9.3 percent in 2011.
Stageberg’s report says the big change in prison
population will be with Hispanics — who are
over-represented in OWI and drug crimes and
The report projects an increase in the number
of Hispanic inmates in Iowa’s prisons from 586
in fiscal year 2011 to 1,152 at the end of fiscal
year 2021. That projection is based solely on
the anticipated increase in the population of
Hispanics in Iowa as a whole.
The Human Rights Department report shows that
the percentage of women in Iowa’s prisons has
jumped from 5.3 in 1990 to a high of 8.8 percent
Another issue at play is the aging of the prison
population: The median age of prisoners in the
system was 29 in 1991. Today it is 34.
One concern is that the number of inmates older
than 50 will rise from 1,129 at the end of the
current fiscal year to about 2,000 by 2021.
“I don’t know if you’re going to have to establish
geriatric prisons,” Stageberg said.
A National Governors Association report showed
that elderly inmates cost about $70,000 annually
compared to $29,000 for the rest the prison
The median age for death of lifers in Iowa’s
prison system has been 58 years.
In general, prisoners have more health issues
than the general public because of lifestyle,
“People who wind up in prison are typically
people who haven’t taken very good care of themselves,”
Drug and alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking
rates of those entering the system are high,
Stageberg said. Baldwin said 23 percent of the
prisoners in Iowa have a “serious” mental illness.
“A lot of the people also have serious mental
issues and what they do with the drugs sometimes,
not always, is try to self medicate,” Neu said.
“So what we have in the prison system now are
a lot of people who are there for drug offenses.”
In many Iowa counties, there are few diversion
programs for people with mental illnesses and
substance abuse issues, meaning the criminal-justice
system is a lodge of last resort for all those
who slipped through an inadequate system.
“That’s not a good place to work with people
who have mental-health issues,” Neu said. “Of
course there are some people who have mental-health
issues who are dangerous and those people have
to be dealt with in the prison system. But we
have a lot of people in prison who don’t need
to be there.”
In 2005, the Iowa Legislature passed tougher
laws on sex offenders. This is also a major
reason for a higher expected prison population
going forward, according to the Human Rights
The number of offenders serving sentences for
sex offenses is expected to increase from 1,270
to 2,222 by 2021.
An even bigger factor than the sex-offender
requirements is the Violent Crime Initiative,
which went into effect in 1997 and mandated
that offenders serve at least 85 percent of
the maximum time for certain violent crimes.
Changes to the law have set that figure at 70
percent for many of the offenders.
On May 9, the Iowa Department of Corrections
expects to receive a report through its “Results
First” program — a cost-benefit analysis that
will review the system with a business-like
Baldwin expects to get results that address
a number of the problems in Iowa’s prisons.