The Iowa State Penitentiary is tired, old and outdated and needs to be replaced, a group of lawmakers has decided.
When the Legislature convenes Jan. 14, plans to build a new maximum security prison will be among the prime topics for debate, with some arguing now is the time to replace the outdated facility and others questioning how to finance such an expensive proposition.
There's little disagreement, however, that a new prison is eventually needed.
Construction began on the original cellhouse at the state's only maximum security prison in 1839, seven years before Iowa became the 29th state.
Inside the 30-foot fort-like limestone block walls, the prison has housed inmates considered Iowa's most dangerous. It was once the site of the state's gallows, where over the years more than 30 men were hanged. The state abolished the death penalty in 1965.
Some of the original cellhouses are still standing but no longer house inmates. They have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992.
The state hired an architecture and design consultant to study the state's prison system and make recommendations. Ultimately, a legislative panel formed to study the matter recommended construction of an estimated $121.2 million prison on state land near Fort Madison.
Some facilities at the current prison would continue to operate, including a special needs unit for inmates with mental health and clinical care needs, which opened in August 2002 and a medium security dormitory called the John Bennett Center, built in 1963.
Recommendations included $51 million for an expansion at the women's prison in Mitchellville to consolidate women's corrections programs there; $25.3 million to expand the prison in Newton; and $41.5 million to expand the state's community corrections program by adding beds in Des Moines, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo.
Gov. Chet Culver said he supports the proposal for a new Fort Madison prison and said the state would likely borrow the money to build it.
"We're working with the Department of Management and the budget team to come up with a funding plan to address this infrastructure need related to our prisons," he said. "I'm very confident we will find a way to pay for that and it's a priority. We certainly have some bonding options, for example, that we're looking at."
Culver said a recommended funding plan will be in place before the Legislature convenes on Jan. 14.
He said the plan would not be paid for out of the state's general fund.
Republican lawmakers on the study committee said they have concerns about plans to borrow as much as $300 million for the prison expansion plan.
Rep. Steve Lukan, R-New Vienna, said the state needs more prison beds and increased funding for community-based corrections, but he's not sure the recommendations are in the state's best interests.
"I'm concerned that the committee is not being efficient with taxpayer dollars," Lukan said at the committee's November meeting. "I think instead of being quick to just build another facility, we need to be taking a look at how to better utilize the current structures we have. By creating other options, we can make changes without putting the state into huge debt through bonding."
Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, said the Legislature has traditionally paid for prison improvements without borrowing.
"Putting our state into this kind of debt is fiscally irresponsible and as a committee, we need to be certain we're not pushing this year's responsibility onto next year's budget," he said.
Tjepkes said lawmakers should resist bundling the prison plan with other state projects.