- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Prisoners have been removed from a lockdown unit where an Iowa inmate managed to escape his cell despite strict security protocols, a prison spokeswoman said Tuesday.

All 12 offenders in the unit known as the A-Pod have been transferred elsewhere in the Iowa State Penitentiary complex in Fort Madison as a safety precaution, spokeswoman Rebecca Bowker said.

The move comes as authorities investigate how Justin Kestner escaped his cell early Sunday on the unit, which housed some of the state’s most disruptive and dangerous maximum-security inmates in what were considered the most secure cells in the state. Prisoners are generally confined to their cells 23 hours a day for disciplinary or security reasons, and they are searched, handcuffed and escorted every time they leave. Correctional officers are stationed on the unit and required to conduct bed checks every 30 minutes.

Unlike other cells in the prison, those on the A-Pod have individual showers so that inmates do not have to interact with other offenders and officers when bathing. In his cell shower, Kestner removed screws from an access cover that led to a narrow space that hid the building’s pipes, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. Kestner was able to maneuver up through the space, climb through a vent and emerge on the building’s roof. He then used a rope constructed from torn bedsheets and a drain pipe to make his way down to an unfenced area.

Kestner, 25, then walked north along nearby railroad tracks for about 5 miles to the rural town of Wever and stole an unlocked Pontiac Grand Prix that had the keys inside, Lee County Sheriff Jim Sholl said. He fled in the car, which was reported abandoned several hours later about 100 miles away near Geneseo, Illinois.



After learning the vehicle was registered to an owner in Wever, investigators searching for Kestner immediately figured it was his getaway car, Sholl said. An Illinois trooper searching the area found Kestner walking along the side of Highway 82 near Interstate 80. Kestner fled into a cornfield, but eventually surrendered without incident.

The A-Pod is on the top floor of a newer building at the prison complex, parts of which date back to 1839. The prison is expected to close later this summer or early fall and inmates will move down the road to a new, $166 million Iowa State Penitentiary, which has been delayed by construction problems.

Kestner’s escape, the first from Fort Madison since 2005, would not have been possible in the new prison because of the surveillance technology it will feature and the different building structure, Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said.

“That type of access would not be available,” he said.

Some Democratic lawmakers argued the escape also illustrates a need to hire more officers at Fort Madison and other prisons, which they contend are chronically understaffed.

“The less eyes you have on the dangerous felons, the better the chance is they are going to find a way to get out,” said Sen. Rich Taylor, a Mount Pleasant Democrat and former prison employee.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rejected that argument Monday while pledging the state would investigate the circumstances that contributed to the escape.

Last week, Branstad vetoed a bill that called on his administration to hire more correctional officers but didn’t provide extra funding. In his veto message, he said that providing adequate staffing “is the prerogative of the executive branch.”

Kestner had been serving a 20-year prison term for robbing two Sioux City gas stations in 2009. He’s been charged with felony escape and is expected to face an additional charge related to the car theft, Assistant Lee County Attorney Clinton Boddicker said.

The owner of the Grand Prix was unaware it had been stolen until a deputy told him early Sunday; the car wasn’t damaged. It’s unclear why Kestner abandoned the vehicle, but the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating, Sholl said.

He said he doubted the escape would make residents take additional security measures, such as not leaving keys in their cars.

“We’re a rural community and people get complacent,” the sheriff said.

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