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Selling Iowa’s prison farms could bring millions, but cost history
Consultant recommends selling 4,000 acres of farmland
During the Great Depression, when food was scarce across the country, men incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary grew the vegetables and fruit they ate behind bars. They raised hogs, cattle and poultry, collected eggs and even made milk, cheese and ice cream.
Prison farms in Iowa and across the country not only supplied food for incarcerated people but they were the first prison vocational programs outside prison walls.
The state now is considering selling more than 4,000 acres of farmland surrounding Iowa prisons and other residential facilities to raise an estimated $32.7 million. About one-third of the land is near the Anamosa prison, and likely includes a farm on the National Register of Historic Places.
The parcel, called Farm No. 1, Iowa Men’s Reformatory, was added to the National Register in 1992 and has 10 buildings, including limestone barns, a slaughter house, dining hall, granary and a root cellar from the early 1900s.
“They are gorgeous as a little cluster, a little community, of the prison life,” said Beth DeBoom, a Cedar Rapids historic preservation advocate, after seeing photos of the buildings. “The time traveler in me was drawn to those photos and what was there once upon a time. I just don’t know how that bodes for the future.”
If the buildings were torn down “it would be a terrible loss,” she said.
Farm No 1 Iowa Mens Reformatory NR (002) by Gazetteonline on Scribd
In a 68-page report, Virginia-based consulting firm Guidehouse recommends a host of ways Iowa could save money from reducing duplication of computer software to demoting local community-based corrections boards.
The consultant says the Iowa departments of Corrections and Health and Human Services own more than 4,700 acres of farmland near prisons and residential facilities, such as the Independence Mental Health Institute. Much of that land is rented out to other farmers, which brings in income of $1.7 million a year.
Guidehouse suggests Iowa sell 4,073 acres to generate $32.7 million in one-time cash the state could use to fund other operations, including changes to community-based corrections.
“Inmates employed have declined over the years given the increased technical requirements for farm operations and advanced machinery used,” the report states. “For (calendar year) 2020, only 8.36 inmates were employed (FTE), a 28% decrease from the year prior. To be eligible for the program, an inmate must be low risk, and this also leads to high turnover as this population is often eligible for parole.”
The consultant advises Iowa maintain buffer zones around the prisons and residential facilities of between 50 acres to 200 acres.
The Anamosa State Penitentiary, with soaring walls made by offenders from limestone quarried at Stone City, also is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The prison, Iowa’s oldest still in operation, was the site of a March 2021 attack by two prisoners who killed correctional Officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte as part of a failed escape plan. The Corrections Department recently decided to move all maximum-security offenders out of the Anamosa prison.
The Gazette last week asked the Corrections Department several questions about the proposed land sale, including:
- Would the state require the farmland be used for farming or could buyers develop it (with any needed zoning changes)?
- Are the proposed buffers large enough for safety if there were housing developments or retail areas on the former farmland?
- Does this proposal leave enough room to build a new Anamosa prison in the same area?
The agency did not answer those questions by Friday afternoon.
Selling the farms
It’s not the first time Iowa has considered selling the prison farms.
A 2002 report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said selling all the land or just the rented portions could boost the state’s general fund. But there were downsides, including limiting opportunities for offender employment and reducing “land that is currently available for future prison expansion or replacement of existing facilities.”
Iowa farmland values were averaging more than $9,000 an acre in November, up from about $7,200 in 2012, according to Progressive Farmer.
The $8,000-per-acre average price factored into the Guidehouse report does not account for costs associated with selling the land, such as real estate commissions, surveys, advertising and legal costs.
The report recommends selling 1,245 acres near the Anamosa prison.
It’s unclear from the proposal which state-owned farmland would be sold, but there are at least three major agricultural swathes near the prison, Jones County Assessor’s records show. This includes Farm No. 1 west of the prison complex and the State of Iowa Reformatory Dairy north of the prison.
What to do with farm buildings
If the state sells Farm No. 1, the future owner would have no restrictions on what it could do with the buildings, despite the National Register designation. That means the buildings could be torn down.
DeBoom thinks the farm buildings could be repurposed into shops or housing since the area is close to a residential area in Anamosa. There are state and federal grants available to restore National Register buildings.
Bruce Perry, president of Preservation Iowa, said he’d like every historic building to be preserved, but it doesn’t always make sense.
“My suggestion would be that in some way this story is documented,” he said about the history of prisoners raising their food. “If the prison farm buildings were to go away, but there is a series of plaques and kiosks that would tell the story of what that was like.”
Anamosa Prison Farms timeline
1874: Iowa opens its second state penitentiary in Anamosa. In the Romanesque Revival style, the building was made by inmates from limestone quarried at Stone City.
1912: Opposition to prison labor contracts competing with private enterprise caused Iowa to create the prison farm as an alternative way to occupy offenders with outdoor work.
1913: Iowa Legislature appropriates money for purchase of prison farmland. The state founded six prison farms near Anamosa and three farms at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.
1912 to 1939: Ten buildings are built at Farm No. 1, west of the Anamosa prison. These include barns, a granary, slaughterhouse, root cellar and a dining hall. Several are made from local limestone.
1920: Offenders grow vegetables as well as raise cattle and hogs to be slaughtered for prison use.
1930s: Prison farms expand into poultry, eggs, fruit, milk and milk products, including cheese, butter and ice cream to meet the needs of the prison.
1931: State converts a barn near the Anamosa complex to a cheese factory.
1932: Anamosa prison staff create larger fields to accommodate mechanization by tractor and establish a crop rotation.
1970s: Regulations on meat slaughtering end this process at the Anamosa prison farms, which causes staff to reduce herds. Vegetable production drops off as it becomes cheaper to buy produce than grow it.
2002: Farm 1 still has 86 medium-security offenders living in a bunkhouse. The men perform tasks including farm and garden work, food preparation, housekeeping and working at the Iowa Prison Industries warehouse, Legislative Services Agency reports.
Source: Iowa’s 1992 application for Farm No. 1, Men’s Reformatory to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
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