Fort Madison, IA – Organizers could not have asked for a better day for an event that's been years in the making: 60 degrees, slight breeze, sunny skies. It's unlikely, though, that weather would have kept the nearly 200 people in attendance from witnessing the groundbreaking for a new Iowa State Penitentiary.
Director John Baldwin says the Iowa Department of Corrections has one goal for this project.
"Our goal has been very simple," says Baldwin, "we want to have the best maximum security prison in the United States."
Current ISP Warden John Ault says the new maximum security prison will feature state-of-the-art security for correctional officers,inmates, and the general public.
"There is going to be direct supervision," says Ault, "and there will fewer blind spots, unlike the old facility that was built in 1839. Line of sight will be much easier. (It will also have) the latest technology, whether it is cameras, radios, equipment for counting inmates, and a double fence."
The idea of building a new, state-of-the-art Iowa State Penitentiary has been tossed around for years. But it took two inmates escaping from the prison, about 5-years ago, to intensify those discussions.
The two were re-captured quickly. But the security deficiencies of the aging facility did not escape the spotlight.
State Senator Gene Fraise (D-Fort Madison) fought to keep the Iowa State Penitentiary in Lee County as opposed to moving it to another part of the state.
"This day has been a long time coming," says Fraise, "but it was not a certainty. It was never a done deal. Many people saw the wisdom of building a new prison in Fort Madison, but some people did not."
Speculation as to where the prison would wind up came to an end when Governor Chet Culver traveled to Fort Madison nearly two years ago. He signed legislation that called for the Iowa State Penitentiary to remain in the southeast corner of the state.
Governor Culver says that is critical, given the economic challenges facing the area.
"This is a historic project," says Culver, "I will put the project up against anyone in the country in terms of what this means for job development and economic development at a time that we can really use it."
The construction of the new 800-bed maximum security prison just off of Highway 61 is expected to create as many as 500-new jobs. Fort Madison Mayor Steve Ireland says the project will do even more for his community.
"It might help that baker hire a new baker," says Ireland, "that used car salesman sell a few more cars, or that grocery store sell more groceries. That is what it is all about. As mayor, when things like this happen, it makes my job a lot easier."
The $130,000,000 project will be paid for using court fines and fees collected by the state. The actual construction of the Iowa State Penitentiary could get going in August, with completion tentatively scheduled for early 2014.