Governor Branstad will be in Fort Madison Wednesday for a ribbon cutting at the new Iowa State Penitentiary. Reporters were given a tour of the $130 million facility today.

John Baldwin is the Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections. “This new prison will really give the staff and the offenders much more opportunity to improve their lives,” Baldwin said. “It’s much brighter, with much better sight lines and cameras everywhere.” Inmates will begin moving into the new 800-bed prison early next year.

The facility is replacing a maximum security prison that was built in 1839, the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River. “The old place is just wonderfully historic, but after 175 years of being a prison, it’s probably time to have a brand new prison,” Baldwin said.

Iowa State Pen Warden Nick Ludwick praised the architects of new prison. “People are of the mistaken assumption that their primary goal is just to build a building for the offenders,” Ludwick said. “The reality of it is, when you talk with our architects…they’ll say ‘we’re building it for staff,’ because most of the staff will work there for 20 to 30 years.”

Plans for the new prison were launched shortly after two inmates escaped from the current facility back in 2005. “From a security perspective, a lot of people look at it and they see fences and a very large institution. Well, this is a much more secure facility than our current location,” Ludwick said. The new prison is equipped with 386 cameras. “In essence, everything that happens will be under some form of surveillance,” Ludwick said.

Rebecca Bowker oversaw the construction of the prison for the Iowa Department of Corrections. She said corrections staff at the current prison had a lot of input on the design and requested that everything be kept on one level. “Our existing facility goes up many flights of stairs. That can be very problematic for response purposes, as well as just trying to provide services, food, and those types of things to offenders,” Bowker said. Staff at the prison also requested the facility’s “tower” be located in such a way as to see every entrance into the prison’s 45-acre campus that’s secured. Overall, the new site spans 90 acres of land.

(Reporting in Ft. Madison by KILJ’S Theresa Rose, additional reporting in Des Moines by Radio Iowa’s Pat Curtis)