Nick Ludwick's final day on the job as Warden at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison is Friday, Jan. 27. He's retiring after a four decade career in corrections in Michigan and Iowa.
Ludwick got his start in 1975. He was working part-time and attending college in Ionia, Michigan, which is home to the Michigan Reformatory. Ludwick said his best friend’s dad, who was warden at the institution, called Ludwick and a few of his friends together one Monday morning.
“Dale was a big guy, you know, he was not someone you said no to,” said Ludwick. “When Dale asked you to meet him, we all adjusted our schedules accordingly with no idea what he had in mind. When we arrived, he said, ‘I need five new employees.” Out of those five employees, he realized more than 160 years of seniority, so he did a good job of selecting.”
Ludwick said he knew early on that corrections was the right field for him. He said while growing up his family helped him learn to be comfortable in any environment, and that proved to be quite helpful in a prison setting.
“You learn the nuances of the environment,” said Ludwick. “A prison is not for everyone. I tell all of my employees that if this work bothers you, then this is not the right place to work. I have always found great joy in working with staff and working with offenders. I am glad I did [this] for my profession.”
Ludwick worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections for more than 30 years before being named warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary in June 2010. While in southeast Iowa, he oversaw the transfer of inmates from the historic prison near the riverfront to the new maximum security facility just north of the city in 2015.
Ludwick said an incident early in his career led him to the administrative side of corrections.
“I was working with an individual who I knew was being promoted to an assistant deputy warden,” said Ludwick. “Well, the following week (after the person was promoted), I passed him in the hallway and he walked past me like he did not even know me. He had changed and forgotten his roots. That was the catalyst.”
Ludwick said that exchange prompted him to take a year off work so he could complete his Bachelor’s Degree. He said the moment also helped him develop his leadership style.
“I manage like a coach,” said Ludwick. “Coaches realize that there are some people they need to spend more time with than others. They also realize there are some people they can basically turn loose and trust them to do their job. They know how to motivate people. They know when to listen. They know how to organize a team and how to get people to work together for a common goal as one rather than on a singular basis. An asset of mine is the ability to get people to feel comfortable, to get people to realize there are more strength in many than there is one and to enjoy their work.”
Ludwick said as he thought about his 40 year career, he’s realized how much corrections has changed. He said it’s more professional now with a focus on diversity, which is welcome.
“Corrections, when I started, was basically a male working environment,” said Ludwick. “We have diversified our staff, we have worked very hard to diversify our staff by hiring more female employees and minority employees with every opportunity we had.”
Ludwick points to the advancement of the inmate classification system as a major advancement in corrections.
“Back in the day, the 1970’s-1980’s, we used to let way too many offenders out in the yard at a time, so there were a lot of fights,” said Ludwick. “There was a lot of growth in our system in Michigan and we had to sort things out. We had to put more of an emphasis on a classification system that properly determined where an individual should be housed for his program, mental health needs, and medical needs. Once that was developed and implemented and then given the emphasis that it needed, it helped manage the institutions.”
Ludwick said he does not see privately-owned prisons as the future of corrections because those businesses focus on the bottom line, not the employees or the inmates. He added that state run institutions provide the best opportunities for growth and improvement for all involved.
Ludwick said what the future holds appears to be directly connected to inmate-focused programs that make every effort to prepare offenders to re-enter society.
“If [programs] are not validated as having some positive effect in that area, then there is no reason to have them,” said Ludwick. “I think the evidence-based programming would be number one. One thing about corrections is we’re a cyclical business. There are a lot of things we have done before that we will do again… Right now, we start at the front door and we work on preparing an individual for his or her eventual return to society. So the evolution of corrections will continue to place more of an emphasis on walking and talking.”
Ludwick said he’s leaving due to the medical advice of members of his health care team at the Mayo Clinic, who've been treating him for melanoma for 12 years, the last five and a half years with stage 4 cancer.
"Although I'm leaving prematurely to spend time with my beautiful wife and family, I leave with immense pride for all our team at ISP has accomplished during my tenure as their Warden,” said Ludwick.
“I accepted this job for the challenge of closing the oldest operating facility west of the Mississippi and transitioning staff and offenders for the move to our new institution. We've developed a culture of respect, teamwork and open communication with staff and the men we supervise. I would have selected my friend and peer Warden Wachtendorf as my replacement and am elated that she accepted the reappointment to Fort Madison. I'll be forever thankful for my time serving the state of Iowa and the opportunity to say that I worked alongside the proud staff at The Fort."
Patti Wachtendorf will replace Ludwick as ISP Warden on Feb. 1, 2017. She is currently the Warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, a position she’s held since 2009.
Wachtendorf is quite familiar with the prison in Fort Madison -- she started her career there in 1983. While there, she served as correctional officer, investigator, senior correctional officer, correctional counselor, and treatment services director.
“I am very excited to return to Fort Madison where I started my career,” said Wachtendorf. “Two of my children and five of my grandchildren live in Southeast Iowa so I will be able to spend more time with family.”