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DES MOINES — About three in 10 inmates in Iowa’s prison system have some form of serious mental illness often linked to substance abuse, state officials said Tuesday.

 And the problem gets even bigger when the population is expanded to offenders who are under supervised release in Iowa communities, they said.

“We are the largest mental-health institute in Iowa,” Dr. Harbans Deol, medical director for the state Department of Corrections, told Senate Judiciary Committee members in presenting data indicating that 2,589 offenders in Iowa’s 8,333 prison population in 2012 were diagnosed as having serious mental illnesses.

Deol said the largest segment, nearly 30 percent, had substance use disorders, followed by inmates suffering from depression and major depressive disorders

(18 percent), anxiety and panic disorders (14.7 percent) and personality disorders (10.8 percent). The rankings were similar for male and female offenders, he noted.

The medical director said many of the problems are identified during the screening process at entry. But he noted that a bigger worry are those offenders who do not tell corrections officials about problems they have or medications they may have been taking for chemical imbalances, so staff members are trained to look for triggers or stressors that may point to issues not initially identified and treated.

The system often has 30-40 inmates on suicide watch at any given week due to mental illnesses, he noted.

John Baldwin, director of the state Department of Corrections, who has highlighted growing mental-health concerns for several years, said he is pleased that Gov. Terry Branstad and lawmakers in the House and Senate have “stepped up” this session with a willingness to try to address the problem. He noted that more than 90 percent of the offenders incarcerated in the prison system eventually will be released.

Gary Hinzman, director of the 6th Judicial District for the state Department of Corrections, said the “shadow behind the curtain” is that an even bigger number of people, probably between 7,000 and 8,000, are under supervision who are in need of mental-health treatment — some who otherwise would not be criminals and some who are not receiving the treatment services they need.

Dr. Malinda Lamb, director of clinical services for the 6th Judicial District, said individuals with mental illnesses are over-represented in the criminal justice system, with about 75 percent having a co-occurring substance abuse disorder along with risk factors such as anti-social behavior, personalities or cognitions.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the data presented suggested that better mental-health services likely would mean fewer people entering prisons and better treatment in the community-based corrections could cut down on the number of repeat offenders.

“This is an investment we need to make to keep people safe,” Hogg said. “I think it’s pretty clear, if we don’t provide mental-health services, we’re going to have more victims and more crimes.”


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