- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s new but empty $132 million maximum-security prison was built with a flawed smoke evacuation system that needs to be fixed for the safety of inmates, the Iowa Department of Corrections confirmed Wednesday.

The disclosure marks another setback for the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, where workers have spent months trying to repair a geothermal heating and cooling system that also didn’t work. In both cases, state officials say a now-defunct Dubuque subcontractor is responsible for the design flaws, which may complicate the state’s possible legal efforts to recoup taxpayer money spent repairing them.

Prison officials celebrated the opening of the 800-inmate prison a year ago and were supposed to transfer roughly 550 inmates from the nearby old penitentiary last spring. But those plans remain on hold as several contractors and state agencies try to bring the prison up to code. State officials said they still have no timeline for the transfer of inmates and acknowledged that employees who have received seven days of training will need refresher training on the new prison’s technology.

“Sometimes things are going to happen and we’re dealing with those,” department spokesman Fred Scaletta said of the problems.

The smoke evacuation systems in four buildings that will house inmates were built with design flaws, which were discovered after they failed to work during a July 29 test, officials said. That meant inmates could have had trouble exiting the buildings safely in the event of a fire because dangerous levels of smoke would remain inside.

“Very inadequate,” department engineer Mickel Edwards said. “It failed.”

Workers pumped in outside air during a Sept. 25 follow-up test, and the system removed smoke successfully. Scaletta said the department is considering several options on how to get more air inside during a fire, including opening the doors. Additional construction changes may be necessary.

The Iowa Fire Marshal’s office is waiting for information from the project architect before considering whether any proposed changes would bring the prison up to code, spokesman Ron Humphrey said.

As for the geothermal system, workers have completed upgrades to the pumps and pipes that didn’t initially heat or cool several buildings adequately, officials said Wednesday. The department announced those problems in April, though they had been discovered months earlier. The project’s commissioning agent is conducting final testing on the system this week.

Department officials refused to say how much the repairs have cost to date, only that it’s more than $1 million. The Durrant Group, a subcontractor for the project’s architect, is responsible for the apparent design of both flawed systems, department deputy director Brad Hier said.

Durrant filed for bankruptcy in 2012 - during construction - and abruptly ceased operations months later. Another contractor took over its work, but didn’t assume Durrant’s liability.

State officials have been “in constant contact” with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to consider possible legal claims against companies involved in the construction, Department of Administrative Services spokesman Caleb Hunter said.

Meanwhile, anger is mounting among hundreds of the 175-year-old penitentiary’s correctional officers, said Danny Homan, president of a union that represents them. He said some who didn’t want to transfer to the new, high-tech prison have retired, but wouldn’t have done so if they knew of the delay.

“There is just a ton of questions by people who are extremely frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

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