Legislators investigating Iowa’s aging prison system, toured the state’s oldest facility in Fort Madison this week. The community is working to make sure they hold onto the penitentiary in the future. The century old structure in Fort Madison has been under scrutiny ever since two inmates escaped in 2005.
Some lawmakers have suggested building a new maximum security prison in a more central location. But the co-chair of a legislative study committee, Representative Todd Taylor, says that doesn’t make sense financially.
"That would just devastate the economy of southeast Iowa," Taylor says, "putting it somewhere else is not practical and I wouldn’t support that." The Cedar Rapids Democrat says Fort Madison is still a good location for the prison.
"I’m not necessarily convinced that putting it in another location is going to be more efficient in terms of, say, travel for supplies or a hospital…(the prison) is not far from University Hospitals (in Iowa City)." Taylor say the inmate escapes can not be blamed entirely on the outdated facility.
"At the time of the escape," Taylor asks, "did we have guards on top of that castle-like wall at all hours? No, we did not. And now we do." Taylor says while parts of the facility are obsolete, other areas, like the critical care unit, are only a few years old. Taylor says that’s why it makes more sense to build a new super max prison on land the state already owns in Fort Madison, adjacent to the current prison.
Fort Madison Senator Gene Fraise co-chairs the legislative study committee and has been lining up support for maintaining a prison there. "There will be people trying to chip away at it and do something else," Fraise says, "but I think we have our ducks in a row and the governor has said a new prison, if there is one built, and it looks like there will be, that it will be in Fort Madison."
Earlier this week, the Board of Corrections endorsed a plan to spend $290 million dollars to upgrade the state’s prison system…including replacing the state penitentiary and the women’s prison in Mitchellville. But Senator Fraise says there’s strong support for building on the current sites, rather than allowing other communities to bid for the new prisons.