The State Prison System Planning Committee, which is Co-chaired by State Representative Todd Taylor of Cedar Rapids, wrapped up their work yesterday and recommended a series of upgrades to Iowa’s prison system.  The committee was formed to study Iowa’s prison system, which has a design capacity of 7,364 but currently houses 8,894 offenders.

The recommendations will be considered by the 2008 Iowa Legislature, which opens up on January 14. The scoop from today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette:  

Legislative panel supports proposal to build 2 prisons
By Rod Boshart, The Gazette
rod.boshart@gazettecommunications.com

DES MOINES — A legislative study panel on Wednesday recommended lawmakers proceed next session with nearly $240 million in upgrades to Iowa’s prisons, including replacing the women’s prison in Mitchellville and the Fort Madison penitentiary.

Committee members voted 7-2 to seek approval of plans to build a $121.2 million maximum-security prison on a prison farm near Fort Madison, to spend $51.4 million to replace the women’s prison at Mitchellville and to add beds at that location.

The panel also supported a $25.3 million proposal to add minimum-security beds at the Newton complex and $41.5 million to build additional residential beds in Des Moines, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo.

“These changes are needed desperately,” said John Baldwin, state Department of Corrections director.

He estimated the upgrades could be completed at Mitchellville by January 2012, at Newton by May 2012 and at Fort Madison by January 2014. The community-based beds at four locations could be added in 2010 and 2011.

Gov. Chet Culver previously endorsed the upgrades recommended by the department.

Along with the construction plans, corrections officials are crafting a new classification system to better manage the prison population. They also are taking steps to improve education, substance abuse treatment and mental health programs in hopes of reducing the number of criminals re-entering prison for committing repeat offenses after their release, Baldwin said.

The corrections director said wardens at the state’s nine prisons have been given a year to review programs and propose ways to fix those not producing results or the programs will be scrapped.

“I firmly believe you’re going to see huge improvements over the next three to five years in our results,” Baldwin told lawmakers. “I think we’re slowly getting there.”

Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, a committee co-chairman, said he expected the recommendations to win legislative support during the 2008 session. Lawmakers likely would use bonding supported by proceeds from criminal fines, fees and forfeitures to finance the package, he said.

With overcrowding at facing Iowa’s prisons, it is better for lawmakers to be proactive with an improvement plan than to wait for federal courts to force the upgrades, he said.

“I’d like to be in charge of our own destiny rather than having that imposed on us by the courts,” Taylor added.

However, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said she reluctantly supported the recommendations because she was concerned that a “if you build it, they will come” scenario would mean increased incarceration.

State Sen. Tom Hancock, D-Epworth, said he would like to see the former mental health institute in Independence used to expand mental health and substance abuse services for inmates. Baldwin said he was open to considering that option.

Lawmakers agreed with the capital improvements recommended by the Department of Corrections and a consulting firm that studied the state’s prison needs.

However, they disagreed with the agency’s position that the penitentiary in Fort Madison be closed once a new facility comes on line in 2014, saying they would like to see upgrades made to house medium-security inmates inside the walled facility.

Sen. Eugene Fraise, D-Fort Madison, the other panel co-chairman, ruled out a proposal by Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, that the location of a new maximum-security prison be opened to bids by competing communities.

“There’ll be proposals to open it up (next session), but I think it’ll be a futile attempt,” Fraise said. “I think the governor has made a decision that that’s where it’s going to be, and any attempts to change that, even if we should pass it, he would probably veto that.”