You could say Wednesday’s “Grand Opening” of the new Iowa State Penitentiary was a once in a lifetime experience. That’s because the current maximum security prison was built nearly 175 years ago, when Iowa was still a territory.
The ceremony brought together more than 200 people, including city, county, and state leaders, as well as Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.
They celebrated the new prison and the people behind the multi-million dollar complex.
The new prison sits on 90-acres of land just north of Fort Madison, about two miles up the road from the current prison, which was the first prison built west of the Mississippi River.
45-acres is surrounded by a towering chain-link fence, complete with roll after roll of barbed wire.
Warden Nick Ludwick describes this new location as “state of the art” and “top of the line” when it comes to technology and security.
“From a security perspective, a lot of people look at it and see fences and this very large institution,” says Ludwick. “This is a much more secure facility than our current location.”
Ludwick led a small group of journalists on a tour of the facility before the “Grand Opening.”
The most noticeable change, compared to the current prison, is the fence. The current Iowa State Penitentiary is surrounded by a giant stone wall, restricting views inside or outside.
The other is the size.
To get from the administrative building to the housing units or the dining areas, you have to cross nearly three football fields worth of green grass and sidewalks.
Ludwick says you could fit four of the current prisons inside the new complex.
The inmates are expected to be transferred in March.
Ludwick says until then, staff will be training so they are fully prepared to handle the new facility when the inmates arrive.
“We are involved in 14 weeks of training, 20-25 staff members each week just to get them familiar with this new physical plan, with the drastic difference from the existing location and pointing out all of the advantages from a management perspective.”
The first stop on the tour was the kitchen and dining rooms, which is ironic because Ludwick says they are among the most important rooms in the complex.
“The kitchen, the food service area is one of the most criticial areas in any institution because your entire population, your entire population that is not locked down is allowed to traverse through your kitchen at least three times per day.”
In each dining room, one wall has three large slots at knee level.
One slot offers regular meals with vegetarian and diet meals in the other two.
Ludwick says this is a new practice, compared to the previous prison, designed to curb potential fights because the server and the receiver cannot see each other.
The complex also includes a chapel, a library, several classrooms, a barber shop, a wing for inmates with mental health issues and another for aging inmates.
The three main housing units can hold more than 700 inmates combined.
Ludwick says an underrated aspect of them, and the other buildings in the new prison, is the amount of natural light that shines through.
That is not always the case at the current Iowa State Penitentiary.
“This natural light, it lifts your mood, it lifts your spirit,” says Ludwick. “We intend to play on that, we really hope to capitalize on that.”
Ludwick was asked several times during the media tour about the date of the transfer.
Each time… he shook his head and said… “you could ask me all day and I would not tell you” followed by a chuckle. You can tell he is proud of the new facility because that smile stayed on his face throughout the Grand Opening.