UPDATED WITH COMMENTS FROM FORT MADISON MAYOR BRAD RANDOLPH
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – As part of the state’s mandated budget cuts signed into law in January, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced today the closing of the John Bennett Unit at the Iowa State Penitentiary.
“The Department of Corrections understands the fiscally challenging position that the state is in, and thanks the Governor, Lt. Governor, and legislature for enacting budget adjustments that allow the Department to strategically streamline services,” DOC Director Jerry Bartruff said in release today.”
“The department has been studying the best way to implement these adjustments for weeks. We’ve worked collaboratively with all institutions and community-based corrections districts to identify the most strategic way to implement these changes. The actions that we are taking meet the high expectation of safety in our facilities, while also ensuring that the Department does not have to close any of our institutions. While change is rarely easy, the Department of Corrections will make the necessary reallocation of resources to ensure the highest level of safety for the public, the staff, and the offenders under our supervision. To strategically implement the required adjustments within the Department, the DOC will suspend services in the following units:
Luster Heights Camp (Harper’s Ferry)
Lodge Unit (Clarinda)
John Bennett Unit (Fort Madison)
Residential Treatment Services (Sheldon; community based corrections)
The statement went on to indicate the DOC is working with staff across the state to help in relocating or offering other positions to displaced staff.
Fort Madison Mayor Brad Randolph said it’s a disappointing situation on many levels.
“My first concern is that I hope it doesn’t include any layoffs. That would be very disappointing,” Randolph said. “A close second is the financial impact to the city.”
The city has, for generations, benefited from prison offender labor as part of the Parks staff. Randolph said the city typically budgets about $90,000 for guards and offender staffing in the parks budget.
“Hearing rumors to that effect a couple weeks ago, I had our city manager look at what the actual cost to the city would be if that program was to cease. I took that and reached out to the Governor’s office. I haven’t heard back from them yet, but it could be devastating locally to the city.”
Randolph said he heard the facility could be closed as early as March 1, which is in the middle of the current budget year and figures it could take up to eight full-time people to fill the gaps and those figures could equate to more than $300,000 in wages and benefits to the city. Subtracting the $90,000 currently budgeted the city could pay an additional $227,000 in wages and benefits if eight were hired. He said the city just wasn’t sure yet what that number of staff would be.
“And then you tack on another empty building. Now it’s gonna sit idle…the historic prison is sitting idle. The DOC is going to have make some decisions on property. I would love to sit with them and find out what their plans are,” he said.
Lee County Supervisor, Ron Fedler, 26-year veteran of ISP said the cuts are tough and are going to be felt all the way down the line.
“They used to have that unit on the east side on and then moved it to the Clinical Care Unit. At the time that had 200 cells in the unit for the criminally insane,” Fedler said. Then when they built the new facility they moved the farm inmates in there.”
Fedler said he understands that the budget required some cuts to be made, but said the facility was still fairly new.
“I know they have to make some cuts. It’s just kind of sad. That unit cost more than $20 million and that was a brand new facility. It’s not the old. It’s just kind of a shame to not use it anymore.
He said it was his hope that when the new budgets begin after the first of July they find money to reopen it and keep those types of inmates here.
“Those farm inmates really do a great service for the area helping with the chores. If the city doesn’t have the inmates then it will have to hire people to do that work.”
ISP Executive Officer Rebecca Bowker said ISP prison officials would have no other comments at this time.