One of the decisions lawmakers will wrestle with this year is whether to build a new, maximum security prison.
Staffing issues are cited in recent incidents at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, but the prison is over 150 years old and Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says there’s is a “decent shot” lawmakers will decide it’s time to build a new one. “Clearly the prison at Fort Madison isn’t the most staff-efficient prison so we think there’s probably some savings to be had by building a more efficient prison,” Gronstal says.
According to Gronstal, legislators won’t be very interested in looking at other cities as potential sites for a new prison. “We think it probably makes sense to build it in the location it’s at right now (with) a trained and ready workforce.”
But other leading statehouse Democrats say it’s premature to make such predictions. Governor-elect Chet Culver says he first wants to see the report being prepared by state prison officials who’re investigating the prospect of a new prison. “That (report) will be in my hands within a matter of a week or two,” Culver says. “But I have said in the interests of public safety, if it makes sense, it’s something that I’m interested in supporting.”
House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines says there a lot of problems with the current penitentiary. “Our first and last prioritiy as a government is public safety,” McCarthy says. “…Secondarily, in term of importance, would be the monetary cost of it…and what would be the long-term implications if we do not build a new prison at this state.”
Senate Republican Leader Mary Lundby of Marion says her “gut reaction” is against closing the prison in Fort Madison. “I think that prison can be rehabilitated for a lot less than $100 million,” Lundby says. “I hope that the legislature will look at rehabilitation possibilites before we build a brand-new, state-of-the-art prison in Fort Madison.”
House Republican Leader Christopher Rants of Sioux City says he has no personal opinion on the issue, and will leave it up to Democrats to decide since they control the legislature’s debate agenda. “It’s not really our decision,” Rants says.
McCarthy, the House Democratic Leader, hopes part of the discussion about a new prison will focus on how the state is managing all its prisoners, not just the “lifers” at Fort Madison. “Only about six percent of our state’s prison population are violent felons,” McCarthy says. “The rest are non-violent offenders, most of them (incarcerated for) drug offenses.”
Attorney General Tom Miller has called on legislators to increase the amount of money spent helping inmates kick a drug addiction while they’re behind bars.