WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Investigation Into Last Summer's Prisoner Escape

Oct 21, 2015

A document released by the Iowa State Penitentiary reveals the amount of planning and preparation behind an inmate's escape over the summer. It also says prison policies and procedures were not followed, helping lead to the escape.

Justin Kestner escaped from the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on July 4, 2015 and was captured the next day in northwest Illinois.

Warden Nick Ludwick’s three page summary of the escape and subsequent response states that officers determined Kestner was missing at about 4:45 in the morning on July 5 after he did not respond to a standard inmate count. 

When officers entered his cell, they found insulation, milk cartons, pillows and clothing had been shaped to the form of a human body lying in Kestner’s bed.

The entire ISP staff was notified of the escape 15 minutes later and within 10 minutes, all inmates were returned to their cells.  A full count was then completed showing that Kestner was indeed missing.

After his capture, Kestner allegedly explained how he escaped saying that he was transferred to cell A-9 in the John Bennett Unit on June 25, at which time he noticed several loose screws in his shower.  He said he was able to remove the screws, giving him access to the pipe chase next to his cell, which gave him access to the attic.  Once in the attic, he found a vent that led to the roof.

Kestner said he practiced his escape several times between June 28 and July 4.  He even stored the materials used to make the dummy for his bed, and other supplies in the attic.

Ludwick’s summary states that Kestner used a downspout to climb down the 82 foot tall building.  He then waited to walk toward the parking lot until a July 4 fireworks display started so the tower staff would be distracted and less likely to notice him.

The Iowa State Penitentiary opened its Incident Command Center at 7:00 a.m. on July 5.  It included representatives from the Fort Madison Police Department, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Iowa State Patrol, and the Division of Criminal Investigation.  Other state agencies were informed of the escape shortly after and within a half hour of the formation of incident command, the prison’s alert whistle sounded to notify nearby residents.

Incident command learned of a stolen vehicle found in a wooded area near Geneseo, Illinois just prior to 9 a.m.  About an hour later, an individual matching Kestner’s description was apprehended while walking along Illinois Route 82, near Interstate 80.  His identity was confirmed at 10:15 a.m.

Kestner allegedly stole the vehicle from Wever.  Prior to that, he encountered some people having a party.  He is said to have told the people, at roughly 11:00 p.m. on July 4 that “he had escaped from the prison and that he was not a bad guy.  He was just in for stealing cars and was on his way to see a girl.”

Warden Ludwick concluded his three-page summary by stating the investigation of the escape revealed policy and procedural errors including the lack of timely rounds, accurate log book entries by housing staff, routine quartermaster inventories, frequent call searches and rounds by Shift Commanders. 

It goes on to say that those issues have been addressed and that significant security enhancements have been made at the new institution including:

  • Additional razor wire
  • No-climb wires
  • Fortified fences
  • Additional cameras
  • Additional manned desk
  • Improved line of site around prison

A spokesperson for the Iowa State Penitentiary cited personnel issues after refusing to comment on whether any of the prison staff was punished following the escape.