Fort Madison Prison Tour Highlights Question Over Future Use

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FORT MADISON, Iowa  --  Hundreds of people are expected to be in Fort Madison this weekend to tour the former Iowa State Penitentiary.

“We had a new warden start in February and she has decided to allow tours to the general public on Sunday, May 7th,” said Rebecca Bowker, who is the spokesperson for the penitentiary. “We’re anticipating keeping it around 30 minutes, so we will have a lot of people here that day, so it’s important that we keep it moving.”

Admission is one food item to donate to the Fort Madison Food Pantry.

New warden Patti Wachtendorf was the warden at the Mitchellville Correctional Facility, and is the first female warden to serve the Fort Madison Prison.

The Iowa Penitentiary closed August 1st of 2015 when inmates were moved to a brand new prison on the north edge of Fort Madison. Around 580 inmates were held at the old facility when it closed.

Recently, several Iowa media outlets were given a tour of the former Fort Madison Penitentiary.

Parts of the Iowa State Pentitentiary are on the National Register of Historic Places. The original prison opened in 1839 before Iowa became a state. Part of the original cell block will be on Sunday's tour.

“The facility is now closed, so basically there's utilities that are being ran to the structures, but there's no occupation and there's no one on site,” said Bowker. “I get probably at least one call a week, sometimes more, from different types of groups all over the country as well as local, wanting to come in and tour the facility.”

Mark Fullenkamp is Vice President of Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, Inc. He has a great interest in the Fort Madison prison, as his mother and a number of other relatives worked in the facility.

“Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, Inc. is a nonprofit started with the mission of re-purposing this facility as an economic incubator and historic site,” said Fullenkamp. “So we want the public to be aware of what we're trying to do this at this time. Given the state budget crunch or lack of funds, we need help from the public. We’ve asked for ideas, we are open to any ideas or thoughts, we’re also looking for funds to try to get that environmental assessment and more planning to re-purpose it and make it into something valuable for the entire state.”

The environmental assessment is needed so engineers know if there is lead paint, asbestos, or other hazards that could add to the cost of a project.

By law, the state cannot tear the buildings down, as some are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Iowa Department of Corrections cannot open a tour service for the old building.

“We are in the prison business and not necessarily the tourism business,” said Bowker.


The Historic Iowa State Penitentiary group is aware of a similar effort in Missouri, where a penitentiary closed in 2004. A plan was drawn up to run the prison as a tourist attraction, but initially nothing happened.

“The state also formed a redevelopment commission and they came up with a plan for redevelopment,” said Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin. “That plan kind of stopped. Unfortunately, sometimes politics can get in the way.”

Then the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau took on running the prison, under the ownership and direction of the Department of Corrections in the state of Missouri.

“It’s a fun project to work on. I never thought I'd be doing some of the things that I'm doing,” said Diane Gillespie, director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s very, very interesting to see the reaction for the people who have gone on the doors.”

In 2009, there were 3,000 visitors to the old Missouri Penitentiary. In 2016, there were almost 30,000. Total revenue in 2016 was $648,000, with net profit of $87,000. The CVB was also able to put back $95,000 in repairs to structures on the complex. This included a couple new roofs and extensive cleaning of one building.

“Out of the tour revenue comes the staff pay, which includes tour guides, tour guide assistants, and our prison tour coordinator,” said Katherine Reed, a spokesperson for the Jefferson City CVB. “The rest is used for marketing, operational expenses, and then a portion goes into a reserve account for future preservation projects."

“In 2011, we started the paranormal tours,” said Gillespie. “Those have grown tremendously, they're big in the fall, and Halloween is a huge month for us. We're probably already sold out for this October.”

The Missouri facility has also hosted several paranormal TV show broadcasts.

If you would like more information, check the Historic Iowa State Pentitentiary Facebook Site.

You can also find more at the Missouri State Pentitentiary Site.