A broom stands forgotten in one of the cellblocks in the abandoned Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.
A broom stands forgotten in one of the cellblocks in the abandoned Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.

December 5, 2018

FORT MADISON

Inside cellblock 17, dim lights guide the way to cells that now sit dark and abandoned.

Faded paint peels off the walls, and the light that is present reveals rusted iron bars, cobweb-coated window panes and worn mattresses on steel frames.

The former Iowa State Penitentiary, commonly known as “The Fort, which once housed hundreds of prisoners in Iowa’s southeastern corner, now sits deserted and disintegrating.

As part of a photography workshop event, I was able to tag along with Carroll photographer Jacob Fiscus to tour Iowa’s oldest prison Nov. 5.

Built in 1839, cellblock 17 is the oldest building on the grounds — some even say it’s haunted. During our tour, led by Rebecca Bowker, an executive officer at the Iowa State Penitentiary, we weren’t able to visit cell house 18 because the tunnels within are collapsing and roofs are falling off. But cellblocks 17, 19 and 20 were free to access.

We learned that several of the cellblocks, built in the Romanesque Revival style, are on the National Historic Registry.

The prison, which was shuttered in 2015, looked as if it was abandoned at least 50 years ago.

“Any time you have a structure that is unoccupied (without) routine ongoing maintenance, you are going to have rapid deterioration, especially for a building that was unoccupied,” Bowker said.

As we walked the grounds, it was easy to step into the shoes of an inmate or guard inside the Iowa State Penitentiary.

I stared at the workout cages outside the cellblocks the prisoners once used, the pay phones that once held a dial tone and of course, the gallows where inmates were once hung.

The now-empty courtyard where people gathered to watch the executions is covered with dead grass and surrounded with barbed-wire fences.

Bowker said there was one inmate, Warren John Nutter, or “Jack,” who had been on death row before the prison closed and was next to be hung, then the death penalty was abolished in Iowa.

Nutter since has been relocated to the new prison just down the road from his old cellblock.

During the tour, Bowker spoke about the 2005 prison escape that catalyzed the prison’s closing. Two inmates, Robert Joseph Legendre and Martin Moon, used a homemade grappling hook made of rope to scale down the Iowa Prison Industries building and escape from prison.

Both inmates were caught days later.

“When we were here, we kept up on everything, but after the 2005 escape, we knew there was going to be a new prison built, so there wasn’t as much money invested in doing certain things like repairing the tunnels and that type of thing because it would be throwing away additional money,” Bowker said.

Along the tour, we were taken to the gym where inmates played basketball, lifted weights and more. We discovered a worn wheelchair within an office where papers still sat on a desk. The office’s closet was packed with boxes of unopened bars of soap and dust-laden cleaning supplies.

It had all been left and, with time, was forgotten.

Bowker said many people believe inmates should not be given the ability to work out while in prison because they see it as a luxury for those who are being punished.

“The fact of the matter is that the sentence is their punishment, so once we have them, we don’t necessarily manage them by their crimes,” she said. “We manage them by their behavior when they’re here. It’s how you act when you are here, so rewarding them with recreation, television — those types of things — are management tools that we have that have been beneficial and successful for us to use.”

Inside the “chow hall,” we saw where inmates waited in line to get their meals and where they sat. The inmates had 20 minutes from when the last person was served to sit down and complete their meals, Bowker said.

We were taken inside a cell house where tier-one offenders were kept once they were released from disciplinary detention, where they’d go if they violated one of about 45 rules.

“They leave you in that status for about 90 days to make sure your behavior is appropriate to move on to a higher privilege level,” Bowker said. “This was kind of a unit that offenders use to fluctuate in between. It was kind of a transition unit.”

Rule violations ranged from stealing, fighting, assaulting a staff member or more, Bowker said.

Next, we visited cell house 319, where the worst-of-the-worst offenders were kept.

“Every time an offender wanted to come out of this cell house, they would have to be fully stripped and put in full iron, meaning their legs were secured, their hands were secured, they had a belly chain and all of that stuff together,” she said. “Then they would be escorted out one hour a day, five days a week.”

The offenders were escorted to their own metal cage and allowed one hour of recreation a day.

Inmates with the best behavior and highest privileges could leave their cells at 6:15 a.m. and stay out until night except during prisoner count times. Those prisoners were able to have jobs at places like Iowa Prison Industries.

“So if you behave yourself, follow the rules, you get to have higher privileges such as more time out of your cell — you get better jobs, et cetera,” Bowker said.

Some people on the tour were surprised by how much freedom the well-behaved inmates had. They seemed pleased with the treatment many of the prisoners received.

To me, being told when you could leave your cage, where and when you could work and when you must return did not sound like anything close to freedom.

But after all, it was prison.

Inside the oldest cell house on the perimeter — 217, which started out in 1839 with only about 60-some prisoners and later held many inmates after the Civil War — were cells that were bare except for fallen leaves that had blown in from the open barred windows. Old, dust-coated mattresses were torn out of cells and left to crumble in the middle of the hallway, and a few cobweb-coverd brooms were still propped up against paint-chipped walls.

Everything inside the cell house seemed cold, and it looked as if it were rotting from years of abandonment. The two-story cell house contains 144 cells and originally was built to house prisoners aged 31 years or older who had been convicted of the most serious felonies, according to a 2016 Iowa State Penitentiary fiscal report.

The cell house closed in 1985 due to court-ordered reduction in inmate population, the report said.

In the years since, the cell doors have rusted over, but the working light bulbs still reveal the hard past of the inmates who once resided there.

Although the prison now sits abandoned and decaying, local groups such as the non-profit Historic Iowa State Penitentiary Inc. hope to find a way to preserve it — not just for the people of Fort Madison, but for anyone interesting in visiting and learning the history of the prison.

The group holds different tours of the prison for $15. The group’s mission, according to its Facebook page, is “dedicated to the development, preservation and promotion of the Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, a nationally significant asset, for education, economic, historic and community purposes.”

All funds from tours and the sale of souvenirs goes to maintaining the Iowa State Penitentiary, according to the group’s website, www.iowastatepen.com/products.html.

Although there were many parts of the prison we were unable to access, it was a great experience to be able to visit the Iowa State Penitentiary, hear the centuries-old stories and learn the history of how the prison functioned and about its final days of operation.