The director of the Iowa Department of Corrections says it would be a mistake to delay several prison construction projects, despite a $700-million shortfall in the state budget. The state is borrowing $200-million to expand the Women’s institution at Mitchellville and replace the State Penitentiary at Fort Madison.
The money will also be used to build new community based corrections facilities in Ottumwa, Sioux City, and Waterloo. Prior to the legislative session some lawmakers proposed delaying construction, but D-O-C Director John Baldwin says there is a constitutional issue at stake.
"(Prisons) must provide reasonable standards of housing and care," Baldwin said. "Iowa’s been down that road once and lost that conversation in the early 1980s. We really, as a state, cannot go down that path." Baldwin says if the state postpones construction and the courts intervene – it will cost taxpayers a lot more money in the long run. He says the new facilities will also be more secure and more efficient. He notes that the new state penitentiary in Fort Madison will open the same year as the old facility marks its 175th birthday.
Meanwhile, two key members of the Iowa legislature say they oppose selling farm land currently operated by the state’s prison system. Governor Culver has discussed selling the property in Fort Madison to help offset the state budget shortfall. But, Senator Gene Fraise, a Democrat from Fort Madison, says the short-term gain would not be enough to offset the loss of jobs and fresh produce the farms provide to the state’s prisons.
"If we sold those farms off we would hurt the Prison Industries Program pretty dramatically," Fraise said. "I would like to keep those farms and expand more on the vegetables and keep (prisoners) out in the fields working rather than sitting in cells." Republican Representative Lance Horbach of Tama agrees. He says the fruit and vegetables grown at the farms help the Department of Corrections provide balanced meals for the inmates at a lower cost.
Horbach claims each meal costs about $1.50 per inmate. "Take your family out to eat and try to eat for a dollar-fifty…that’s a huge and significant cost savings to the taxpayers that I’m not ready to give up just for a short-term gain of a-million or two-million dollars," Horbach said. Both Horbach and Fraise sit on the committees that write the Department of Corrections budget. Baldwin, Horbach and Fraise were all guests today on the Iowa Public Radio program "The Exchange."