Iowa State Penitentiary Receives First Inmates

FORT MADISON, Iowa — More than 500 Iowa inmates were relocated to the state’s $132 million penitentiary in Fort Madison on Aug. 1. The maximum-security facility was completed more than two years ago, however ongoing operational and maintenance issues had delayed the inmate transfer.

"This is a historic day for the Department of Corrections and the State of Iowa," Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) Director Jerry Bartruff said in a statement. "There was a collaborative effort between the DOC and area law enforcement personnel. Together over 500 offenders were moved from the oldest operating facility west of the Mississippi (River) to the new state-of-art facility to ensure public safety."

The 472,000-square-foot Iowa State Penitentiary facility was designed by St. Louis-headquartered HOK and built by Chicago-based Walsh Construction Co. It now houses 507 inmates, a portion of its 800-inmate capacity, following a process that took approximately six hours. During the transition phase inmate movements throughout the facility’s 12 separate buildings will be restricted to give staff an opportunity to acclimate to the space.

During the transfer, security was a top priority. Inmates were searched prior to entering the penitentiary, and a security convoy accompanied the three buses providing transportation. A no-fly zone was temporarily imposed over the site and route. Additional law enforcement officials from neighboring jurisdictions were also posted along the bus route, which extended two miles between the John Bennet Unit — formerly the Clinical Care Unit — and the new penitentiary. All facilities are located on the same complex.

Warden Nick Ludwick said in a statement, “This historic day marks the closing of one facility as well as the opening the new institution. This is a major accomplishment considering the maximum security population involved."

Altogether the transfer required approximately 200 correctional and law enforcement staff, including representatives from the Iowa State Penitentiary, Iowa State Patrol, Fort Madison Police Department, several other local prisons and the Illinois Department of Corrections. Coordinating the detailed and potentially risky transfer — which also required a green light from the state fire marshal — contributed to the facility’s delayed opening.

Moving from an aging facility — parts of which are more than 175 years old — to a much newer space will greatly improve working and living conditions for staff and inmates. However, the space itself delayed occupancy considerably. The new penitentiary building suffered from problems with its smoke evacuation system and geothermal heating and cooling system as well as building code compliance issues, which needed to be remedied before the move. Other concerns included a lack of insulation, poor ventilation and air leakage issues that could result in frozen pipes.

Lawmakers in 2010 agreed to borrow $131 million to build the prison, legislative documents show. By summer 2014, the construction costs had risen to $165.5 million: $160 million for construction and $5.5 million for furnishings. An official ribbon cutting ceremony was held in October 2013.