- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Three weeks after a convicted armed robber managed to escape from a top security cell, inmates at an Iowa prison are still under a lockdown.

Inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison remain on restricted movement status, meaning they are confined to their cells for the vast majority of the time, penitentiary spokeswoman Rebecca Bowker said. “The offenders’ daily routine is quite restrictive,” she said.

Bowker said the tight measures will remain in place “per security concerns and operational needs” but wouldn’t elaborate further on the reason for them.

Prison officials imposed the lockdown July 5, after Justin Kestner escaped from his cell in a building at the prison complex formerly known as the Clinical Care Unit. Kestner was captured hours later in Illinois.

Authorities are preparing to close the prison, which dates to 1839, and move inmates to the new Iowa State Penitentiary about a mile away. The transfer date hasn’t been released for security reasons but is expected to occur in the next few months. Inmates have been told the restrictions on their movement will continue until then, said Jean Basinger, an advocate for inmates who has heard from a group that is upset about them.

Many inmates haven’t been allowed to go to work, depriving them of income they need to buy items from the commissary, she said.

“It started July 5. That is quite a length of time, especially when they are being locked down for something that didn’t happen in their facility. That’s a major gripe. They had nothing to do with it. Why are they being punished?” Basinger said.

Assistant Lee County Attorney Clinton Boddicker, who is prosecuting Kestner for the escape, said Tuesday he’s seen no indication that any other inmates or prison employees were involved.

A notice on the prison’s website says the restrictions mean the prison’s visiting room will be closed from July 31 to Aug. 3, and the next visiting date isn’t until Aug. 10. More than 500 inmates are housed in the prison.

Iowa ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider said one inmate has complained to her office that the restrictions have meant only one hot meal a day and a bologna sandwich for dinner. She said her staff hasn’t received satisfactory answers as to why the lockdown has been imposed and that she would inquire further.

“In the past when we have gotten complaints about lockdown, we usually have gotten the reason why it’s necessary to continue it,” she said.

Kestner, who was being held in disciplinary detention after assaulting a correctional officer, removed the screws to an access cover in his cell shower that led to a narrow space concealing the building’s pipes. He managed to shimmy himself up the space, crawl through a vent and out to the roof, use a rope made from bed sheets to guide himself down to an unfenced area, then flee on foot before stealing a car. Kestner abandoned the car hours later near Geneseo, Illinois, and was arrested walking along a highway.

Iowa Department of Corrections policy allows prisons to impose restricted movement on inmates “in cases of significant threat to security or safety.” The policy says the warden, in consultation with a department deputy director, “shall determine the pace and timing of a return to normal operations.”

After the last escape at the prison in 2005, inmates were also put on lockdown for several weeks.

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