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'People think she's as tough as nails, but she cares about people'

New warden takes over at prison that's home to some of Iowa's most dangerous

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FORT MADISON — Patti Wachtendorf, the new warden at the Iowa State Penitentiary, says it is not her job to punish the prisoners there, who include some of the state’s most dangerous.

“They’ve already received their punishment,” she said during an interview this month at the Fort Madison prison. “It’s my job to keep them safe and provide programming to be the best they can be.”

The state’s only maximum security men’s prison has 311 of Iowa’s most dangerous inmates — “lifers.” But there are hundreds of others who eventually will return to their communities, Wachtendorf said.

As of last week, there were 673, but that can change daily. The goal is to prepare them — including treatment and job training — to succeed outside the fence.

Wachtendorf is just over a month on the job in Fort Madison. Her management style and philosophy as a warden were honed from the seven years she spent as warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

She is not a warden who sits in an office all day, preferring instead to “walk and talk. I’m comfortable going out and talking to the staff and the guys” — meaning the prisoners.

“I talk to them like human beings because they are and they deserve respect,” Wachtendorf said as she clenched her fists for emphasis. “They are somebody’s father, grandfather, brother and uncle.”

Wachtendorf, 58, is direct. The men know there will be consequences for bad behavior.

“But I treat them professionally,” she said. “We are not sinking to anyone’s level; we hope they rise to ours.”

Throughout the interview, Wachtendorf minimized the fact that she is the first female warden in the prison’s 178 year history. To her, simply put, that fact has been “too long coming, and it shouldn’t be the headline.”

Wachtendorf pointed out there are two other newly appointed female wardens in Iowa — Sheryl Dahm, who succeeded her at the Mitchellville prison; and Kristine Weitzell at Newton Correctional Center.

BEST FOR THE JOB

Iowa Department of Corrections Director Jerry Bartruff concurs.

While it’s great she is the first woman to lead the Fort Madison prison, he said, Wachtendorf also is “the best person to step into the role” when Nick Ludwick, 61, who is battling cancer, had to resign in January.

Bartruff pointed to her vast experience in corrections that made her the top candidate.

“Her career path has prepared her to take on the challenge,” Bartruff said last month in a phone interview. “She is successful in maneuvering the land mines.”

Wachtendorf, who grew up in Carthage, Ill., started as a corrections officer at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill. She worked as a corrections officer at Fort Madison from 1983 to 1997. Then she became treatment services director for four years at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, where she started a program for women with special needs and mental issues.

Wachtendorf became security director at the Mitchellville prison in 2001, deputy warden in 2006 and warden in 2009, where she last earned about $143,000 a year.

She made big changes in the prison’s culture, focusing on the prisoners’ re-entry to society, since 95 percent of the women there will be released. She partnered with Des Moines Area Community College to offer inmates more education and job training, increasing the odds of success after release.

SUPPORT FOR SUCCESS

“Patti is a great leader, partner and friend,” said Robert Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College. “Patti was instrumental in the development of DMACC’s educational programming in Mitchellville. She pushed us to do more by making sure we offered welding to the women if we offered it to the men in Newton.”

Denson said the warden streamlined processes so the women could get the most from their time in the program.

Pat Steele, site director with Central Iowa Works office in Des Moines, agreed.

Central Iowa Works had received a grant to start a training program in Transportation Distribution Logistics — distribution and warehouse jobs that pay fairly well. But the grant required 25 percent of the trainees be women. Steele thought the female inmates could benefit. He talked to Wachtendorf last year.

“She told me, ‘We have no staff, no computers and no money, so if you can deal with that…,’” Steele said. “I said we can do that.”

Steele said Wachtendorf’s willingness to take a risk made it possible for three groups of prisoners to complete the program. Some 80 to 85 percent are employed in the field after release.

Denson noted that Wachtendorf supported every training program and attended every graduation celebration, whether it was for life skills, high school equivalency or a certificate program.

“I’M ALWAYS A MOM’

Wachtendorf said she thinks it helped that she was a mother before she became a supervisor, because it helped her relate to staff and inmates.

“I can be a mom or I can pull rank and be a dictator,” she said. “But I’m always a mom, and I’m caring. Not going to apologize for that. I care.”

Tim Darr, treatment services director at Mitchellville, said Wachtendorf is “driven, direct and a perfectionist,” but above all she cares about the people who work for her and the prisoners.

“People think she’s as tough as nails, but she cares about people,” said Darr, who has worked at the prison for 16 years. “She wants the offenders to leave and never come back. And she cares about the safety of the staff and offenders.”

Darr said she even cared about her staff’s life outside the job. He recalled the time his father-in-law died and she came to the visitation in Winterset — over an hour from Mitchellville.

It was her caring nature that first piqued Wachtendorf’s interest in corrections. She was in junior high when she watched a television show about prisons.

“I thought the inmates were treated badly and I wanted to change that,” Wachtendorf said. “You know, everybody starts out wanting to change the world. I became fascinated with prisons.”

As a teenager, she wrote prison wardens, visited three prisons and started subscribing to prison newspapers.

NOW AT ‘DREAM JOB’

Wachtendorf said it was emotional to leave Mitchellville, but running a maximum security was her “dream job.”

It also allowed her to go back to where she had once worked, and meant she can live closer to two of her children and five grandchildren. Her other son and grandson live in South Carolina.

Bartruff said Ludwick, the former Fort Madison warden, took Wachtendorf around the prison to introduce her before he retired. They met with the offenders, mostly the leaders of the various groups of prisoners. She already knew some of them because they had been there 20 years ago when she was a correctional officer.

“Some of them told me, ‘You said you would be back as warden,’” Wachtendorf said with a grin.

Wachtendorf said she’s never been afraid working in prisons but is always aware of safety. She acknowledges there are incidents at the men’s prison — fights and assaults — and there are gang members.

But, she said, “it’s not a violent prison, like Stateville … It’s a safe prison for offenders and staff.”

To make up for an expected revenue shortfall, the Legislature has cut $5.5 million from the corrections budget, part of the nearly $118 million in budget cuts and transfers statewide. Wachtendorf said the budget cuts are a concern, but administrators have to “live within the budget.”

The new Fort Madison prison, which opened in 2015, has helped meet efficiency and safety challenges. The “lines of sight” are better for corrections officers and there is more “open space to increase visibility,” she said. There also is more technology, such as cameras to supplement staffing and security procedures.

“A lot less blind spots in new place versus the old prison,” she said. “That alone is safer for staff.”

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Wachtendorf said she is “playing catch-up” and working on some goals but hasn’t made any big changes at the prison.

She declined to share her thoughts on those goals, saying she wanted to talk to her staff before making anything public.

She is interested, however, in bringing programs into the prison that will help crime prevention and allow inmates to give back.

She pointed to one program, “The Domino Effect,” that started two years ago at the women’s prison in conjunction with Drake University students. The program helps teachers, counselors, librarians and even school secretaries identify early warning signs of at-risk youth to get help sooner before it leads to criminal activity.

The teachers and others come into the prison and talk with prisoners, who share how they were helped by a teacher or, maybe, a specific program in school, Wachtendorf said. The offenders, she said, feel they are possibly keeping someone else out of prison.

“There are many positive things going on here,” she said. “More positive than negative.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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