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Inside Iowa's New Maximum Security Prison


Note: this was originally published on October 20th, 2015.

One year and nine months after the completion of the new Iowa State Penitentiary, more than 500 of Iowa’s most dangerous offenders were transferred to the new grounds. On this edition of River to River – a look inside Fort Madison’s new $166 million maximum security prison.

Host Ben Kieffer and producer Emily Woodbury take a tour with Warden Nick Ludwick, who says the architecture of the new prison helps maximize safety, even with fewer security guards. He also says that the penitentiary has a certain “vibe” due to the effort he and his staff put towards mutual respect.

“You can teach people manners, despite the security level they happen to be in,” Ludwick says. “It all starts with my staff; their willingness to walk and talk. We are dealing with people. Many of them will be with us the rest of their life, so this is our community.”

The warden also opens up about the institution’s policy toward solitary confinement, the efficacy of prison programs for those with life sentences, and how he approaches his work while fighting a battle with Stage IV melanoma.

“The offenders know me very well,” he says. “I’m open with people about dealing with adversity. One of the key facets for any warden and any administrator in corrections is to be accessible. The more accessible you are, the more involvement you have both with staff and offenders, and that creates this atmosphere that we’re enjoying today.”

Kieffer also talks with several offenders serving life sentences, including Bertram “Herky” Berkett, prison barber and member of the hospice team. Berkett says hospice work has made him a “calmer, more respectful person,” and described the team's ritual after each offender’s passing.

“When [offenders] die, we wash the body, put it in clean sheets, put it in the bag, and each member of the team gets a zip of the bag,” he says.

For more information on the penitentiary, including a look at how mealtime operates in a maximum security prison, join the River to River crew for “Lunch at the Iowa State Penitentiary.”

And, see photos of the “old fort,” now partially empty, but still used to house some minimum security offenders.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River