Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Prisoners of development

Surely, we must be missing the boat here. First, Spencer was campaigning to land a prison for geriatric inmates - guys who presumably used to have black widow tattoos on their chests, which have now migrated down to their knees. Well, at least if they ever escaped, the dogs could easily track the dents in the snow from the tennis balls on the bottom of their walkers.

Now, our neighbor to the west, Cherokee, is happily celebrating the coup of landing Iowa's Civil Commitment Unit for Sex Offenders. The town's economic development leader lauds it as "opportunity" of a like seldom afforded to smaller cities for boosting the local economy.

It's practical reality, perhaps, but a little sad nonetheless that economic development in Iowa has become a competition to get razor-fenced prisons into town.

We just get wise to the futility of chasing smokestacks, it seems, and we emerge into the utility of chasing watchguard towers.

If Cherokee is happy to become known as the home to many of Iowa's most dangerous sexual predators, more power to them. We have to put those people somewhere. Not sure it's exactly tourism guide bragging material, but hey, it is jobs.

According to AP reports, the development actually brings more staff jobs than it does prisoners - 38 inmates, 57 state-funded folks on the payroll to the tune of $30,000-$40,000 per. The state is also paying over $2 million to renovate a long-vacant wing of the imposing Cherokee Mental Health Center to house the sexual predators.

Taxpayers will no doubt be jut thrilled to hear this - millions of dollars more to serve the blossoming field of incarceration. Dozens of prolific sexual abusers deemed so dangerous that even though their sentenced are all served, the state doesn't dare to let them back on the streets. Sort of a human landfill. Not the kind of thing that appears in the Iowa Visitors Guide.

Some may have to be housed for life, and there's little reason to believe the numbers won't grow with time. We're past all pretense of the prison system as a rehabilitative entity, at least when it comes to this kind of animalistic abuse. We've all seen those public notices when a sex offender parolee moves into town: "Considered high risk to offend again."

If having this unit means more of those people stay locked away instead of being "high risk" in our neighborhoods, well then, thank you Cherokee, Iowa.

It would be nice to think that some of these individuals could be helped to perhaps lead productive lives again one day, but likely for many it is a case where safety via separation is all society can hope. And that costs money and requires facilities.

"The city is looking forward to it," the Cherokee mayor is quoted on the opening of this facility. At the same time, in the unit's old home, Coralville, city officials weren't broken-hearted. "That's one less thing for people to be worries and concerned about," the city administrator said.

By all accounts, security at the Cherokee facility will be appropriate, including double wire fences to separate repeated sexual offenders from the kids who may be using the park and trail area nearby.

Prison facilities are a fact of life, and it is important to have communities willing to provide for them. No doubt, they are a source of new money and jobs for local economies at a time when other development opportunities may be slim.

But a celebratory tone to bring sex criminals into an area facility still doesn't seem quite right, and we are not at all disappointed that Storm Lake hasn't seen fit to compete for the "economic development opportunity" represented by Iowa's growing crime and punishment industry.

We can respect the area communities trying to attract segments of the prison industry in order to boost their own economies. And we can reluctantly recognize that these may be the most viable forms of significant development at the moment for some places. And yet, "looking forward to it" may not quite express the uneasy feeling this puts in our stomachs.