By John Skipper
In 2015, when the new $182 million Iowa State Penitentiary opened near U.S. Highway 61 on the northern edge of Fort Madison, hundreds of correctional and law enforcement officers oversaw the peaceful transfer of 507 offenders from the old state prison to the new one without incident. It was in stark contrast to the opening of the state’s first prison in 1839, which was marred by the escape of prisoners, marking the beginning of a colorful 178-year-history of the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison.
The old state prison, which is located about two miles south of the new one, did not exactly get off to a sterling start in 1839. The state’s first prison “started out as a hole in the ground under the floor of the warden’s mansion. Seven of the first eleven prisoners escaped,” according to an Iowa State Penitentiary publication.
It was intended to house only offenders 31 years of age or older, or people convicted of the most serious offenses. There is no record as to why the founders decided that the age of 31 would be the threshold for incarceration.
Today, it has a history of more successes than setbacks and it is one of nine prisons in Iowa, serving as the state’s only maximum security prison. In January, Patti Wachtendorf became the first female prison warden ever in Iowa. She leads 400 employees overseeing 550 prisoners in the maximum-security area, 169 in medium security and dozens on two minimum security farms near the prison.
But the prison’s early years smack of wild-west adventures as prisoners often fought one another and guards, frequently escaped and were generally feared by penitentiary officials and guards. Today’s prison focuses on improving the lives of the inmates so that one day they may become productive citizens.
“Fort Madison has a long history of wardens who had the philosophy of rehabilitation,” said Mark Fullenkamp, a University of Iowa professor who grew up in the Fort Madison area and started the nonprofit group Historic Iowa State Penitentiary after the prison closed in 2015. “That philosophy of rehabilitation swings like a pendulum through the 20th century.”