On a rainy May morning, Joshua Goemaat was painting the ceiling of a small building just down a hill from the Newton Correctional Release Center, where he’s incarcerated. The building will serve as classroom and storage space where Goemaat will work as one of the first Iowa inmates to build houses for families across the state.
“This is a great opportunity,” Goemaat said. “It’s something different than what you’re used to. A lot of people do this on the streets, I do this on the streets. Having an opportunity to do it in here—it’s great.”
Two big barriers to growing Iowa’s economy are a shortage of skilled workers, and a lack of good-quality, affordable homes. State officials are trying to construct a solution at the Newton prison in central Iowa that they hope will also keep some offenders from returning to jail.
Inmates will build three-bedroom houses in Newton to be shipped to communities that need affordable housing. And Goemaat and others in the home building program can get formal training to become carpenters, electricians, plumbers and general laborers.
“Anything helps,” Goemaat said. “Really it does. Learn something new every day.”
“And it’s just a win-win for Iowa,” said Newton Correctional Facility acting Warden Jeremy Larson. “To build really good quality homes for citizens of Iowa that need them, and communities that need them, and at the same time give our guys skills to make them successful when they get out. We’re excited.”
Iowa Prison Industries will oversee construction and sell the houses to a new nonprofit, called Homes for Iowa, which has a board that will decide where to put the houses and how much they will cost. The nonprofit board has already decided to send the first four completed houses to Marshalltown, which was devastated by a tornado last year.
“Most of the communities are identifying housing as one of their top needs,” said Lance Henning, a Homes for Iowa board member and president of Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity.
“When you get farther into some of the rural areas, there’s not even the builders to be able to put those units in place,” Henning said. “You start thinking about spreading out 100 or 150 of these across the state each year—it will start to make a significant difference.”
This effort is modeled after an initiative in South Dakota, where inmates have built more than 2,500 homes over the past two decades for low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Corrections officials believe Iowa will become the only other state with a large-scale prison home building program.
But this year, Iowa is starting out small and building only four houses. That’s mainly because Iowa lawmakers didn’t provide money to launch the initiative, which Gov. Kim Reynolds requested in 2018.
The program is combining the proceeds from a land sale, Iowa Prison Industries funds, and a grant from the Iowa Finance Authority to get it off the ground. Homes for Iowa may also seek private donations and other partnerships in the future.
The state’s goal is to eventually have about 100 men, including medium-security inmates, working on a ten-acre, fenced-in site.
“So whether legislators decide to appropriate some money or not will just determine the speed with which we expand,” Iowa Prison Industries Director Dan Clark said.
“I think once there are real houses here, and people are able to come and see the quality of the home, and the impact it has on the men that are here, and the impact it has on the family that ends up buying the home, I think there will be a lot of support for the program,” Clark said.
Some business associations, lawmakers and labor groups have broader concerns with the potential for Iowa Prison Industries to compete with private businesses in the state.
Lobbyist Charlie Wishman said the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO reduced its opposition to the program when they learned its focus on low-income families in rural areas made it unlikely to compete with construction companies and workers.
“If there are workers that are willing, ready and able to do this, and businesses to employ them, we wouldn’t see a need for inmates to be doing that kind of work,” Wishman said.
He called inmate labor a “shortcut,” and said workers should be paid fair and reasonable wages.
Iowa Prison Industries pays inmates about a dollar a day, which will allow the houses they build to be sold and delivered for an estimated $125,000.
Jay Iverson with the Home Builders Association of Iowa is on the Homes for Iowa board. He said he isn’t concerned about competition because private construction companies can’t build a three-bedroom house for that price.
The construction industry is generally supportive because it’s facing a major workforce shortage. Iverson said he is not sure how open his members will be to hiring ex-offenders.
“That will be interesting to find out,” Iverson said.
The Master Builders of Iowa, which represents commercial construction interests, opposed a legislative proposal to fund the program through a state infrastructure budget. But Ben Hammes said they support any effort to grow the construction workforce.
“I think overall, the industry is very willing to take a second chance on somebody,” Hammes said. “We are at a time in our industry where we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing. We need workers.”
And Clark said those opportunities can be very important to offenders staying out of prison.
“Getting a high-paying job is a major factor to helping them not get in with the same old ways that put them in prison and brought them back to prison,” Clark said. “So hopefully we can break the cycle if they get a good-paying job and get on with a good employer.”
The home building site supervisor at the Newton Correctional Facility said dozens of inmates have already expressed interest in applying to work in the program.
Gov. Reynolds is expected to attend a ribbon-cutting event for the home building program next week.