Inside the walls and behind the bars: Exploring the historic Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison

Iowa has several state correctional facilities, but the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison in Lee County is most noteworthy because it's our state's oldest and also the place where the worst of the worst are incarcerated.

Opening in 1839 (a near decade before our state was even officially formed in 1846), the original Penitentiary served our state until 2015 - approximately 176 years! If those big solid rock walls could talk, I'm sure they'd have a lot of stories to tell. It's a place that has employed thousands of people, housed tens of thousands of criminals, and even the place where 46 inmates were executed during the time our state utilized capital punishment. Some say it's haunted - but without a doubt - it's an intimidating place.

In 2015, a brand new state-of-the-art facility was completed and opened a little to north and west of Fort Madison - not more than a mile or two from the old one. However, once all the prisoners were moved out to the new facility - the question then remains... what do you do with an enormous but outdated prison facility?

It's been out of use for about 3 years now - but some folks locally are beginning to search for answers about what to do.

It's an enormous campus with lots of buildings full of lots of things. It would not be easily retrofitted to something else without extensive cost. It would also take a significant investment to tear it all down.

But...maybe it shouldn't be retrofitted to something else or torn down. Maybe it should be preserved? Where some could look at it and see a decaying eyesore - someone else could see a tremendous economic development and tourism opportunity.

Before one knows exactly what to do, it might be a good idea to bring in some experts to study the options. And that appears to be exactly what local leaders in Fort Madison are planning to do. But studies cost money too.

That's where they got a little creative. They offered self-guided or guided tours to the public at $15 per person - with proceeds of the ticket sales and souvenirs being put toward a feasibility study about the site.

On Saturday morning, a buddy and I made the adventure to Lee County, our state's furthest south and east county, to spend a few hours exploring the historic prison. They offered blocks of 9am to noon or 1pm to 4pm on both Saturday and Sunday.

Upon arriving and parking, we had to sign a waiver and were given a bag of information provided, I believe, by the local visitors bureau.

We had the option to go with a tour guide or go on our own. A group of about a dozen had just departed so we decided to start with a guide and maybe we'd go explore on our own later. That ended up being a great decision because the guides were, largely, retired prison employees who had tremendous knowledge about the history and processes of the place. They also stationed people at various places who could help answer questions if you were out on your own. There were lots of small groups on their own but there were also plenty of guided groups, too.

My friend and I missed the very beginning introductions and so I never did find the name of my guide. However, he had retired from the prison in 2009.

While a couple of the buildings were closed to the public and most of the upper levels of buildings were blocked off, someone going on the tour could get into most buildings and see a lot of the complex.

The "chow hall", where inmates were served meals, was substantial building with many tables. The menu from the last week was still posted, as if frozen in time. One of the guides told a story about a murder that happened in the chow hall a number of years ago. We were also told about the riot of 1981 that left the entire place essentially controlled by the inmates.

The architecture of the prison is certainly unique and somewhat imposing. They do not make prisons with the tall stone walls and castle-like features anymore. Unfortunately, because of safety reasons, the watch towers were all unavailable to check out. That would have been fun to explore.

However, some of the buildings were less imposing - such as the the laundromat. It was not open for tours, but you could see from the outside that there was not a whole lot of architectural value to it.

If you ever need to scare your kids into behaving, this would be a great tour because you could show them exactly what their living quarters would be like. Our tour guide did an amazing job discussing how the cells worked, what daily life would be like for an inmate, and why some cells were bigger than others or had more or less bars/enclosures on them.

The above chart shows the roster of inmates living in that particular building on the final day of the facility's use.

For example, these cells were larger but were more enclosed.

Other cells were considerably smaller. All of the buildings had a pungent smell about them that was not particularly pleasant.

I never saw any "group" showers but I did find some individual ones that were like mini cells.

Some of the building materials definitely had a bit of an extra patina to them.

Of course, inmates do get an hour of exercise time per day. Better behaved inmates would get more freedom. Here are a couple of the exercise cages used for the poorly behaved.

A gymnasium where inmates could use exercise equipment or play basketball was available. It was mostly still in nice shape.

There were other outside options too, including a walking path and an old softball field.

Near the softball fields was a row of old pay phone stands, but the phones appeared to have been ripped out.

There were a few patches of pretty flowers on the grounds, but our guide noted that those were good places for inmates to hide shanks.

Obviously, there was plenty of razor wire and cameras.

The brick walls lining the entire facility as well as the sidewalk are so impressive and stately. If, God forbid, they do tear the place down...I hope much of it can be re-purposed.

At the end of the tour, the local Crime Stoppers group was selling beverages and you could also purchase souvenirs. Again, the proceeds from the sales would help fund the feasibility study. You can buy online as well.

Next to the items for purchase was a display of various shanks that were recovered over the years. Pretty amazing craftsmanship in many cases.

We spent nearly 3 hours there and it was a fantastic experience. Afterward, we drove to the new facility and it is a stark contrast from the imposing brick, rock, and castle-like structures.