Patti Wachtendorf describes her new role as warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary as her dream job because it allowed her to come home -- both personally and professionally. She replaced outgoing warden Nick Ludwick, who retired.
Wachtendorf grew up in Carthage. She said she knew early on that her path in life would be corrections.
“Believe it or not, I've always wanted to be a warden when I grew up,” said Wachtendorf. “When I was in junior high, I remember watching a movie [during which] inmates were abused. This was in the 1960's and prisons were different in the 1960’s so I wanted to go in and change the world in the prison system.
“In high school, I actually collected newsletters from prisons. I still have the scrapbook. I wrote to wardens in high school and said, ‘I want to be a warden when I grow up, can I come visit your prison?’ and three of them said yes.
“It's always been a passion. I've always loved working in corrections and I've always wanted to be a maximum security warden so I truly am living my dream job, however weird that sounds. I love working in the prison system and making a difference.”
Wachtendorf started her career as a correctional officer at a prison in northwest Illinois in 1979. She said she was able to return to the tri-states region four years later after accepting a job as a correctional officer at ISP.
Wachtendorf worked in Fort Madison for about 14 years, moving up the ranks before transferring to other correctional positions in Iowa.
“I liked being a correctional officer. I liked being a counselor. I liked being a unit manager. I liked being an investigator. I really think you need to learn from the bottom up, so you know how the whole place operates and I know how the whole place operates,” said Wachtendorf.
“Now, I worked in the old institution, not the new institution, so there is a big learning curve here, learning the new facility. I've been gone from men (prisons) for 18 years so getting caught back up with the men versus women -- big differences; and maximum security versus minimum security -- big differences.”
Wachtendorf was serving as the warden of Iowa’s women’s prison in Mitchellville when she was selected to lead the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. She said the opportunity to return home is especially important to her because most of her family still lives in the area, including five of her six grandchildren.
Wachtendorf is one of three female wardens in Iowa’s correctional system, and is the first in the more than 175-year history of ISP.
“I am honored, I’m excited, I’m thrilled to be the first female here,” said Wachtendorf. “But it’s way overdue quite frankly. This is 2017 and women have been capable to be warden here for many, many years.”
Wachtendorf said she’s been busy getting to know the staff since comng to the ISP. She acknowledged she did not arrive under the best of situations.
“I started on a Friday and had to tell people we were closing John Bennett on a Wednesday, so that is not how I envisioned my return to Fort Madison, but it comes with the territory,” said Wachtendorf.
The John Bennett unit housed more than 150 minimum security prisoners at the former clinical care unit on the former ISP campus near downtown Fort Madison. The closure was part of the Iowa DOC’s plan to cut $5.5 million from the current budget.
The move also required ISP to fire seven probationary correctional officers.
“I understand [what] the governor's expectations are and when he says you have to cut $5.5 million, it trickles down to closing, in this case, John Bennett,” said Wachtendorf. “It’s about communication. All facilities have the rumor mill, all workplaces, hospital, schools have the rumor mill, so it is really sitting people down and being as honest with them as you can, even though it's words that they don't want to hear but they appreciate that you have those personal conversations and just tell them what you can tell them.”
Wachtendorf could not say whether the budget cuts are over because, “I don’t have a crystal ball.” She said no matter what, she expects her staff to get their work done and to be respectful and professional.
Wachtendorf said her responsibility is to keep the community safe, the staff safe, and the inmates safe. And she hopes that is what she is talking about one year from now.
“I hope I can say this is a smooth running facility,” said Wachtendorf. “It is a maximum security facility. Things happen. I cannot prevent every fight, I cannot prevent every assault. I want to prevent them but we're dealing with people so those things happen. I don't want them to happen and I want to put things in place to minimize them as much as possible. But I also don't deal in a fantasy world, I deal in reality.”