This morning, the prisoner count in the Iowa Department of Corrections, the state’s prison system, stood at 8,907 convicts.
It’s an expensive operation when one considers that the average annual cost to house an inmate is $31,500 — $86.35 a day to be exact.
And the money comes from us, the taxpayers.
“It’s not like we have a very effective alumni association,” quipped Art Neu, the Carroll attorney who is the vice chairman of the state’s Board of Corrections, which oversees the prison system.
Neu knows the prisons as well as anyone on the outside can. He’s visited all of the prisons, several of them multiple times, often with the Daily Times Herald in tow. A few weeks ago, Neu led a group of Carroll Rotarians to the Fort Dodge Correctional facility.
Neu, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, followed that afternoon-long tour up with a presentation to the Rotary jammed with facts and figures on the process of running prisons. Neu is a longtime advocate for more community-based corrections and a vastly different process for treating non-violent offenders with substance-abuse problems.
The system is now literally overflowing. A January Department of Corrections “quick facts” sheet forecasted that the prison population would be 9,025. Iowa’s just 118 inmates from that as the words flow off my computer keyboard now.
As it stands the prison system is overcrowded by 24 percent.
The Department of Corrections, generally speaking, is a young man’s domain.
According to the department, 48 percent of inmates are under 31, and another 41 percent are between 31 and 50. Just 11 percent of inmates are 50 and older.
Fort Dodge Correctional counselor Todd McCubbin told me one crucial predictor for reform is simply age. About a third of offenders in Iowa will be repeat visitors to prison. Older guys seem to have a better chance of making it if for no other reason than the exhaustion factor with a life of crime and prison.
“The younger guys aren’t ready to change,” McCubbin said.
Twenty-two percent of inmates are incarcerated for violent crimes, 24 percent for property crimes and 25 percent for drug offenses.
Seventy-eight percent of the prison system is male, and 75 percent of it is white, with 16 percent African-American and 5 percent Latino. Native Americans make up 1.3 percent of the system, while Asians barely crack into the count at 0.9 percent.
Neu, of course, understands the need for punishment. But in the non-violent arena where drug and alcohol use and mental illness, often co-conspirators, are the culprits, Neu would like to see changes.
“That and the mental health sometimes go together,” Neu said, adding that prison is just not the place to effectively, both in terms of costs and outcomes, treat this.
Neu isn’t holding his breath for meaningful sentencing reform to emerge.
Democrats and Republicans won’t touch the issues. They are content to live with runaway costs for fear of the their own political hides.
If the governor’s office or a legislator comes out with a proposal to remake the system, they know what waits.
“The other side will say you’re weak on crime,” Neu said. “Then everybody’s all fired up again.”