BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Most young children have dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. Typically those dreams change as we mature and move into adulthood. But sometimes they don’t.
When Patti Wachtendorf takes over the helm of the Iowa State Penitentiary in early February it will be a culmination of a dream she had as a young teenager in Carthage.
“You didn’t want to be a warden when you were growing up?,” Wachtendorf said in a Monday morning interview at the ISP facility. “I watched a movie, and I wish I could think of the name of it, it was back in the late 60s- early 70s and the inmates were abused. And I thought it was terrible so I was gonna go in and change the world.”
She said most kids when she was in school thought they had to be a cop to change the world. When she was in high school she wrote letters to wardens to see if she could go see their facilities and three said yes.
“So I went from Carthage to Rockwell City which was a long way and then to two prisons in Illinois,” she said.
Wachtendorf began her career with the Department of Corrections in 1983 at ISP. She was a Correctional Officer, Investigator, Senior Correctional Officer, Correctional Counselor and Treatment Services Director. She left Fort Madison in December 1997 when she was appointed as Treatment Services Director at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. In January 2001, she became the Security Director at Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville and then Deputy Warden in July of 2006.
I’m excited to come back home. I have children and grandchildren here,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work in corrections and my ultimate goal has always been maximum security warden and Fort Madison is home.”
Wachtendorf will be replacing current Warden Nick Ludwick, who is retiring after close to 42 years in Iowa and Michigan prison systems on advice of his medical care team. Ludwick has been battling melanoma cancer for close to 12 years, the last five in Stage 4.
“My medical team told me it was time to go play,” he said.
Wachtendorf credits Ludwick with positioning the new facility for success.
“Nick’s done all the hard stuff. He did the hard stuff moving from old to new and dealing with the construction,” she said. “We had some (in Mitchellville) too but we’re not maximum security. He got the staff to adapt and offenders to adapt. He’s handled all the hard work of construction and got most of the bugs worked out. I think there’s still a few bugs to work out. Nick will get me up to speed on all the issues remaining as far as construction.”
Part of that hard stuff was getting the new facility up and running and offenders transferred over from the old site. Ludwick said the public perception was tough but internally everyone stayed on message.
“We managed that here. I spoke with staff often about our delayed moves and getting raked over the coals, if you will, with the delayed move and the additional budget. I convinced staff that this was no fault of our own. Our work is ongoing and the move is only one facet of the assimilation and continuation of the process of getting this place up and running.”
He said he’s lauded staff about their strong family ties at the prison and a real sense of community at and away from the workplace. And that focus helps offset the bad news on the outside.
Lee County Supervisor Ron Fedler, who spent more than two decades as a guard at the prison, said he wished Wachtendorf all the best. “As a supervisor I look forward to working with her and the Lee County Board looks for a long and prosperous relationship with her and the Iowa State Penitentiary.”
Ludwick said he’s leaving completely confident in Wachtendorf’s leadership.
“I leave begrudgingly, because I’m leaving before I wanted to leave for medical reasons.” Ludwick said. “But I leave very confident in Patti. Our styles are very similar in walking and talking, we have high expectations for staff, we’re both extremely accessible. We believe that humor, when used appropriately in the workplace, really helps in this type of environment. Every day can go bad in this type of institution. There are two types of silence in a prison and only one of which is acceptable. The potential is always there for unrest, but when we do what we do and train others do the same you can prevent things from going wrong.”
He also said that he believes, in a spiritual sense, that he’s been afforded special favors in his battle with cancer for the work that he’s done.
“I’ll return home to my family and I may write. My only regret is not coming to Iowa sooner,” Ludwick said. “It’s been that positive of an experience. To see the staff interactions and interactions with offenders. It’s just been great to have been a part of that culture change.”
“I would like to thank the people of Iowa and my staff. Everyone has known I’ve been battling a medical situation, but I’ve had an open book about it,” Ludwick said. “The biggest thing for me is thanking citizens of Fort Madison and the support they’ve given me. I leave with head held high, sooner than I would have preferred, but knowing full well that I have a capable replacement who is also a personal friend. My work is complete.”
Wachtendorf said she’s looking forward to becoming a part of the Fort Madison community and helping to continue educating and updating locals on the prison’s operations.
“It’s part of our job to talk about the positive things that happen. It’s not all gloom and doom and there are great things the prisons do. It’s not all negative. I like to go out and speak to the Kiwanis and local groups and help educate the community. I don’t want them to be afraid of the prison. We employee a lot of people and I want those people to be proud they work here and see we can help make a difference in peoples lives. That’s why were here.”