A sudden spike in the Iowa’s prison population has the state’s corrections director concerned and may increase pressure to build a new penitentiary. Corrections Director Gary Maynard says the state’s locked up 200 offenders just since August, far above the rate of recent years.
Maynard says over the past 10 or twelve years, says the state has locked up about 350 people a year, and in the last two or three years dropped to almost no growth as attempts began to hold down the prison population. But if the recent trend continues it’ll push the total number to ten-thousand inmates within three or four more years. If that happens, the state will need a new prison by then.
Maynard says he’d prefer to contain the population figure, instead of having to build more prisons to put them in. The old one at Fort Madison has come under scrutiny since the escape of two dangerous prisoners last November. Some have proposed renovating it, others tearing it down and building a new one — or keeping the old prison, too, as a lower-security lockup. Another thousand beds could be used for mental-health or drug treatment, he says, or it could be kept as just another prison.
But state lawmakers say they hope to reverse the surge in new inmates before a new prison is needed to hold them all. Democratic State Representative Todd Taylor of Cedar Rapids says the state may provide more money this year for “halfway houses.”
There are about 300 people right now who’ve done their time and are eligible for parole, but they have substance-abuse problems or some other factor that means they can’t be simply set free but have to go to some transition area.
If that can be created this year, some prisoners can be released, which Taylor says will free up prison space. Director Maynard has recommended paying to build a new maximum-security prison and turning the old facility at Fort Madison into a medium-security institution, but members of both parties are hesitant to approve funding for a new prison this year.
Republican Representative David Tjepkes of Gowrie sits on the House Budget Committee for Corrections. When you’re talking about spending 80-million dollars, Tjepke says, it’s a big expenditure and he doesn’t think lawmakers will commit to that during this session. He says there is a provision in the budget to recommend a study be started. And in the meantime Representative Tjepkes says the legislature will consider additional funding for some kind of halfway houses, so inmates who are ready to be paroled have somewhere to go.