A new documentary about the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River will have its TV premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday (April 8) on WQPT, the Quad-Cities PBS station, and is available on DVD.
Humanities Iowa partnered with Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker Dan Manatt on the hourlong film, “The Fort: 177 Years of Crime & Punishment at the Iowa State Penitentiary,” which had its theatrical premiere in Fort Madison, 96 miles south of Davenport on the Mississippi River, last October.
The penitentiary was included on Preservation Iowa’s “Most Endangered” list in 2016.
Endangered: Iowa State Penitentiary
Preservation Iowa’s 2016 Most Endangered Buildings: Iowa State Penitentiary (Fort Madison, Lee County)
The earliest portion of the Iowa State Penitentiary was constructed in c. 1839 when Iowa was only a territory, with the Iowa State Penitentiary acting as a territorial prison most of a decade prior to Iowa’s statehood. From the offenders to the correctional officers who have served, this institution has allegedly functioned as the oldest continually used prison west of the Mississippi River. Travelers along the Great River Road, following the river from its source in Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, can view this massive edifice and its old quarried stone walls, not only laid by prison laborers but mined by them from the local hills.
Within these walls, notable buildings tell the history of the Iowa State Penitentiary: the earliest cellhouse from ca.1839, imposing cellhouses in the Romanesque Revival style from the 1910s and 1920s, and even the prison industry building of ca.1936 (within which a 1981 riot erupted). Several of these cellhouses were modeled after the 1818 Auburn Prison in New York.
Cellhouses 18, 19, and 20 were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 as “Iowa State Penitentiary Cellhouses Historic District.” The prison was used by the Department of Corrections until 2015 when a new facility opened. The current condition of the Iowa State Penitentiary could be described as falling into neglect. The iron is rusting, paint is peeling, and cement and sandstone masonry are chipping away.
Old cellhouse 217 hasn’t been used in decades, since the 1980s, and knowing the facility would soon be vacated, it seems many repairs and maintenance items have been deferred. Parts of the complex that weren’t being used are in especially poor condition: the large prison industries building in the center of the complex, for example, which has a partially collapsed roof and damaged façade that resulted from a recent storm. Some parts haven’t been used in decades. Other buildings were in use until 2015, however, knowing the facility would soon be vacated it seems many repairs and maintenance items were deferred. The site is still under the control of the State of Iowa and Department of Corrections, and it may be hard to convince others of the complex’s historic significance and, given the size and complexity of the multi-building facility, it will be difficult to find funding for preservation and adaptive reuse.
Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, Inc. (HISP, Inc.) formed in 2015 to advocate for the preservation and eventual ownership of property.
Preservation Iowa’s Most Endangered Property program was started in 1995 and implemented to educate Iowans about the special buildings and historic sites that are slowly and gradually slipping away from us. In the past 20 years, Preservation Iowa has designated over 140 archaeological sites, churches, landscapes and a variety of other buildings.
The full list of Preservation Iowa’s 2016 Most Endangered Properties includes:
- Endangered: Troy Academy Built in 1850
- Endangered: Herring Hotel, Belle Plaine
- Endangered: Beyer Building on 4th Avenue, Grinnell
- Endangered: First Baptist Church, Grundy Center
- Endangered: Iowa State Penitentiary
- Endangered: Knutson Building
- Endangered: St. Patrick Church
- Endangered: Reimann-Schoeneman House