New prison on schedule in Fort Madison

800-bed facility to open in January

FORT MADISON — Some people have said the new Iowa State Penitentiary under construction in Fort Madison looks like a college campus.

“This is definitely not a college campus,” Warden Nick Ludwick said of the new 800-bed facility that will cost $130 million.

“It’s a tremendous investment, a very important investment,” Ludwick said as members of the Board of Corrections and Department of Corrections staff toured the old prison and construction site Friday.

The new prison is on pace to be completed in January. More than 275 convicted killers will be moved from the current facility into the new prison, with more arriving to relieve overcrowding in other state prisons. The facility will add an additional 250 maximum security units to the state’s overall prison space.

“This is taken to a different level here,” Ludwick said of the prison’s security.

The prison will be one of the most modern and secure in the United States, Ludwick said.

Electric currents will flow through the razor wire fencing surrounding the prison. Locks on each of the cell doors will be wired to a central hub, allowing staff more control of locking mechanisms. Each cell is secured by a door rather than bars, which will create a safer environment for correctional officers.

“We are going to have a very high-tech institution, everything we’ve done here is to try and bring as much technology forward as we can,” said John Baldwin, Department of Corrections director. “It’s going to be very positive, and it will help us improve the outcomes of offenders.”

The 92-acre campus gives space for more offender treatment programs, which Baldwin said will allow additional rehabilitation opportunities for offenders not serving life sentences.

In 2005 the current prison came under fire after two convicted killers escaped and spent a week on the run. At the time Former Gov. Tom Vilsack launched an investigation into the escape, which ended in the removal of Warden Ken Burger and sparked a debate about building a new institution.

The new prison consists of 12 buildings a couple of miles from downtown Fort Madison. Every building at the institution has taken shape since the groundbreaking in April 2010, but each building is progressing at a different pace. Some are nearly complete, while others are still lacking roofs.

Before inmates begin moving into the new prison, the public will be given an opportunity to tour the campus and go inside each building. It will be a rare opportunity, as the Department of Corrections does not offer tours of active prisons.

Baldwin said once the project is complete, the new Iowa State Penitentiary will serve as a national model of how to build a prison.

“We’re only as good as the staff, offenders and technology (are),” he said. “We believe we’ve built a very escape proof prison.”

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