Jail concerns drive big increase in complaints for State Ombudsman in 2018

DES MOINES — The State Ombudsman’s annual report shows complaints to her office increased by 5,000 in 2018.

Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman says the number of complaints is the highest in 17 years and was pushed up by a continued increase in complaints about prisons and jails.  “They’ve been up 68 percent since 2016 — I believe specifically they were up 34 percent last year and another 20-some percent this year,” Hirschman says.

Hirschman says the types of complaints from prisoners are pretty much what they have been hearing for many years. “The complaint categories haven’t changed over the years — whether it’s prison or jail — traditionally and historically the highest number of complaints have been regarding health services. And secondly, conditions of confinement,” Hirschman explains. “So, the categories haven’t changed, we are just seeing a significant increase.”

Hirschman says the prison population has increased, but that is not the only reason for the increase in complaints.
“In talking to sheriffs and jail administrators, they would attribute that to some of the mental health issues that they are having to deal with,” according to Hirschman. “We all know that the prisons and jails have become and are the warehouse for the mentally ill in many respects. So, that could be a contributing factor also.”

She says some of the jailhouse complaints don’t rise to the level where they take any action. “If the nature of their complaint is that their food tray was two hours late, two days in a row, we’re going to tell them that they can file a grievance, but an issue like that is something we are not going to look into that because there wasn’t any significant harm to them in something like that,” Hirschman says.

Hirschman says they sometimes can look into a case and get it taken care of quickly, and cited one case in particular. She says a jail staffer who was mad at an inmate for kicking a door played nursery rhymes on loud volume for a long time to punish the inmate. “That’s not appropriate.” Hirschman says they talked with the Sheriff and the situation was resolved.

Hirschman’s office saw a lot of complaints about Managed Medicaid in 2017, and she says that has kind of leveled off. She says they have declined more provider complaints and referred them to Provider Services because the Iowa Legislature directed Provider Services to handle some of the inquiries. “We do follow up with providers to be sure that they did get the problem resolved — and if they didn’t, then we still make some inquiries,” Hirschman say.

The Ombudsman’s Office often has people who call in who haven’t explored all their other options first. Hirschman says it’s important to check your options before calling her office. “Regardless of when or whether people contact us, if there is an available appeal or grievance process, I would really encourage them to take advantage of that,” Hirschman says. She says the grievance and appeal processes often work better than people might think, and you should see if that helps you solve your issue.

Hirschman says there are some calls where she says they tell the caller they need to consider the circumstances of what happened and know that some things can be unavoidable. For example, this year has been an awful year for county roads, between the rain and the snow and the ice and the freezing and the thawing. So, we’ve seen an uptick just since January 1st of this year on complaints about the condition of county roads,” she says.

Hirschman says people need to understand that county officials are doing what they can in tough circumstances and there is not a lot her office could do to change that situation.