Legislators say it’s unlikely they’ll make a decision this year on whether to build a new, maximum security prison to replace the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. Representative Lance Horbach, a Republican from Tama, says The Fort is in its “twilight” as a maximum security prison, but it’ll take lawmakers a while to decide what’s next. Horbach says the prison decision “cannot be analyzed in three months, especially with all the other decisions that the legislature has to make.” “We’re going to look at all types of things like what type of facility…will carry us into the future,” Horbach says. “Remember, we’re using some of our prisons for over a hundred years.”

Horbach says lawmakers must decide whether building a new prison in far southeast Iowa is the right move, how to reduce the cost of transporting ill and ailing prisoners to the hospital, and how to cut the costs of transferring inmates from one prison to another. Horbach says Fort Madison is the top choice at this point as a site for a new prison, but many questions have to be answered first before lawmakers will authorize construction of a new, 80-million dollar prison in Iowa.

Department of Corrections director Gary Maynard today (Tuesday) told Horbach and other legislators if they don’t approve construction of a new prison, he’ll be able to “make do” with The Fort. “Right now, we’re not doing anything other than securing what we’ve got,” Maynard says. Maynard says his recommendation that the state build a new, maximum security prison had nothing to do with the November escape of two inmates from The Fort. “Nobody asked me before the escape. If some one had asked me a question two year ago, I would have said ‘Yes, at some point you’ve got to replace a prison that’s 168 years old, that was built before the Civil War,” Maynard says. “On the other hand, if the powers-that-be say ‘You’re going to live with that prison. Can you make it work?’ I’d say ‘Yes.'”

If lawmakers decide not to build a new prison, Maynard says he’d suggest tearing some buildings down within The Fort and making other adjustments to improve security. If state policymakers do decide to build a new, maximum security prison, Maynard would not tear down the Penitentiary. “We would transform that institution from its intended use as a maximum security now to a medium security or lower,” Maynard says. He’d also put more “programs” on-site to help the less-dangerous inmates complete substance abuse counseling or get job training, for example. Maynard testified today before a legislative committee that writes the prison system’s budget.