FORT DODGE — A few years ago, when I first visited the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, the medium security prison had an edgy vibe that matched its relatively younger inmate population.
The 18 to twenty-something men in the joint carried themselves in the yard with a more menacing air than in other Iowa Department of Corrections facilities.
Turns out there was an issue with a caged collection of offenders on shorter bids, full of rage, anger.
“A lot of people considered it gladiator camp,” said Warden James McKinney, a veteran of the Iowa Department of Corrections who moved from Rockwell City’s prison to Fort Dodge recently to help address problems.
McKinney, regarded by Board of Corrections member and Carroll attorney Art Neu as one of the more effective leaders in the state’s prisons, spent about three hours with the Carroll Rotary Club on the grounds of the Fort Dodge center Monday afternoon.
Seventeen Rotarians (and the prison staff kept a good running count) toured cell blocks, the yard, library, kitchen and talked with prisoners — some close to leaving for another chance on the outside and others with, as they call them, “life bids.” As the Rotarians were leaving the prison the inmate all-star flag football game was set to begin.
When McKinney came to the prison he quickly shipped out a passel of young inmates and brought in older replacements to serve as mentors and give Fort Dodge a steadier feel.
“We calmed the place down quite a bit,” McKinney said. “We got some older guys in here, and that makes a difference.”
He said prison is much like life on the outside in at least one respect: conflicts between groups of young men who spend a lot of time together often turn physical.
“That’s what they do at 18 to 22,” he said.
On Monday, the prison population in Fort Dodge stood at 1,265, well above the capacity of 1,162. About 25 percent of the inmates have no high school diploma and can’t claim a sixth-grade reading level.
There are some educational and work programs, but even a casual observer, the occasional visitor to the system, can see that idle time rules the roost. Private-sector labor doesn’t want competition from cheaper prison workers, and the general public has no stomach for serious spending on schooling and training programs, believing such things are soft on crime.
That said, 97 percent of the people here will be on the streets again.
McKinney said he deals with the inmates as if they will be living next door to one of his two granddaughters. Toward that end, he does something interesting. McKinney rarely checks the prisoners’ information jackets to see their crimes (unless he’s called on to do so for parole board business.)
“My job is to help that guy get better,” he said. “Rarely do I look up the crimes unless I have to.”
It’s vital to hold fast to the rules in such an environment, but McKinney said he doesn’t want to regulate the medium-security prison based solely on bad actors. He’s instituted an annual banquet and other activities to reward those who are not written up in a given year.
“The bad guys are going to be bad no matter what,” McKinney said.
Correctional counselor Todd McCubbin said one crucial predictor for reform is simply age. About a third of offenders in Iowa will be repeat visitors to prison. Older guys seem to have a better chance of making it if for no other reason than the exhaustion factor with a life of crime and prison.
“The younger guys aren’t ready to change,” McCubbin said.
Hence, the moniker “gladiator camp.”
That can change for inmates in their 30s, McCubbin said.
“You’re in the right time of life when it’s going to make a big difference,” McCubbin said.
There’s a question every man on the outside has about prison thanks to the portrayals and plots of Hollywood.
And it’s a terrifying one.
“What would happen to me in prison? Would I be sexually attacked, a victim of ‘prison love?’”
If you’ve seen a prison movie, like the “Shawshank Redemption” or “American History X,” and you are a man, the scenes involving prison rape probably made you about as ill as anything to come across the big screen.
From a guard’s perspective, what are the risks at for your average 5-10, 195-pound man in white collar job, someone, say, like me.
“It would be difficult for you for a while,” a prison guard told me privately a few years ago at the maximum-security Fort Madison prison when I asked how I might fare if thrown into the environment. “You’d be fighting a lot.”
At Fort Dodge on Monday, Carroll Rotarian and City Councilman Adam Schweers asked the warden if such popular beliefs about prison sexual assaults are true.
McKinney said it is possible to come to the prison and do one’s time the right way without being victimized.
Just minutes later though, in one of the housing units, we saw large posters in the common areas that read: “Sexual assault is an act of violence. Reporting sexual assault is a step on the road to recovery.”
One of the last stops we made was at a meeting of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility Veterans Organization — led by 61-year-old commander Arthur Williams of Waterloo who has been in prison since 1972 at age 23 on a first-degree murder conviction.
Williams is one of the men McKinney looks to as a leader, a role model for the way to do time.
“You gotta understand, this was a young man’s camp,” Williams said.
Williams told us about the many projects the military veterans’ group is doing to raise money. Several involve assisting monument developments honoring veterans in Iowa towns.
His presentation was impressive, and Williams is a 61-year-old man serving time for what a 23-year-old did.
Is he for real? Is he the apparently reformed man presented to the Rotary, or would he strike again on the outside.
Rotarian Tom Louis put it very directly to the warden: Is he conning people?
“He’s serious,” McKinney said. “I wouldn’t give you the con guys.”
It’s probably a moot point anyway. The likelihood of a gubernatorial commutation is remote. The Seattle Times just carried a story detailing the deadly aftermath of the release of a felon from an Arkansas prison after then Gov. Mike Huckabee granted clemency. The prisoner, Maurice Clemmons, would later kill four police officers, a tragedy that weighs on the presidential ambitions of Huckabee.
That case is a severe one as Clemmons reportedly had a record of violence in prison that went underreported as the process and pols spit him out into society.
But politicians aren’t likely to break down the specifics of this case and others like it. It is simply a cautionary tale. Does Gov. Chet Culver or former and perhaps future Gov. Terry Branstad want to take full ownership of the actions of a murderer released to the streets — stake his considerable political career on the man forever staying clean?