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Report Cites Serious Abuses of Mentally Ill Prisoners in Iowa

Letter to Gary D. Maynard, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections

A letter expressing concern regarding the conditions that Dr. Thomas White documents in his February 2005 report and evaluation of five suicides at the Iowa Department of Corrections Clinical Care Unit.

Dear Director Maynard:

I write to express our grave concern about Dr. Thomas White’s February 2005 report documenting the many ongoing problems in the Iowa State Penitentiary Clinical Care Unit (CCU).

The conditions described in Dr. White’s report are unfortunate and devastating for individual inmates. It is, nevertheless, welcome news to read that the Iowa Department of Corrections is committed to implementing Dr. White’s recommendations.

We note in particular Dr. White’s findings that:

  • There have been repeated, lengthy delays (of up to six hours, or more) between offender suicides and the discovery of their death.
  • Mental illness diagnoses are repeatedly vague and do not reflect careful evaluations. Furthermore, there is “virtually no” professional therapy available, despite the mandate of the institution to house mentally ill patients.
  • Mentally ill offenders spend excessive amounts of time locked in their cells with inadequate access to activities, programming, and natural light.
  • Correctional officers lack an understanding that the CCU is not just a punishment facility but a treatment facility; this reflects their lack of specialized training working with mentally ill offenders.

As you no doubt know, the Department’s human rights responsibilities include providing adequate mental healthcare. Human Rights Watch is greatly concerned about this subject, as reflected in our 2003 report Ill Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness.

In Ill Equipped, Human Rights Watch discusses the problems cited in the 1997 ruling in Goff v. Harper, which criticized the Iowa Department of Corrections for a number of problems, including: lack of evaluation of mental health needs, inadequate clinical care staff, extended periods of confinement in segregated or disciplinary housing units, and correctional staff who do not take offenders’ illnesses into account when making custodial or punishment decisions. In light of this legal history and the Department’s assurances that it would improve these conditions, Dr. Whites’ findings are particularly troubling.

As Dr. White states in his report, this ongoing lack of adequate treatment was likely a contributing factor in the five suicides at the CCU in 2003 alone. Five suicides in one year is an unacceptably high rate of potentially preventable suicides. Hopefully, Dr. White’s findings will renew the Department’s dedication to provide adequate healthcare to Iowa’s mentally ill prisoners.

I hope you will keep us informed of the steps the Department is taking to meet the needs of mentally ill offenders in Iowa. I look forward to future correspondence with you regarding improved conditions at the Iowa State Penitentiary CCU.


Jamie Fellner, Esq.
Director, U.S. Program

cc: Dr. Thomas White

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