- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

FORT MADISON, Iowa (AP) - A nonprofit is trying to save an empty Iowa penitentiary that dates to the 1830s as questions loom about what to do with a sprawling complex.

The group, Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, is trying to save the prison that for many people was a place of misery but has played a key role in the state’s history, The Des Moines Register (https://dmreg.co/2mlnPqd ) reported. The group is thinking of turning it into a museum and tourist area, as has been done with prisons in other states.

The nonprofit’s first step is an environmental assessment that costs up to $180,000 to decide what buildings could be used for a historical attraction, education and even small business opportunities.

The group has asked the state to fund it. Iowa State Penitentiary warden Patti Wachtendorf said the money isn’t available because of budget shortfalls in the state and in the Iowa Department of Corrections.

“But we need to preserve this history,” she said.

Retired prison lieutenant Judy Milks said some inmates housed in a new prison for men that opened in 2015 would love to see the old building come down. She said the structures contain too much history, including stories of inmates and guards who lived, worked and died in what was the nation’s oldest continuously operating prison.

For example, cell blocks 18, 19 and 20, built in the Romanesque Revival style between 1913 and 1942, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Per Iowa Code, historically significant structures owned by the state must be maintained, and tearing them down might be difficult.

“This old place has stories,” Wachtendorf said. “I can almost hear them walking around, all the noises.”

The group has studied preservation efforts at penitentiaries in Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some prisons have used ghost tours to help raise money to maintain structures, but no one in the group wants to take that approach.

“You have a lot of families of people who lived here or who were victims of the people who lived here, so we need to do it respectfully,” Wachtendorf said. “People died here. People lived here. This isn’t a joke.”


Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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