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The State of Iowa

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 194-195, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.


Located at Fort Madison, Lee County.

The first act of the Territorial Legislature, relating to a Penitentiary in Iowa, was approved January 25, 1839, the fifth section of which authorized the Governor to draw the sum of $20,000 appropriated by an act of Congress approved July 7, 1838, for public buildings in the Territory of Iowa. It provided for a Board of Directors of three persons elected by the Legislature, who should direct the building of the Penitentiary, which should be located within one mile of the public square, in the town of Fort Madison, Lee County, provided Fort Madison should deed to the directors a tract of land suitable for a site, and assign them, by contract, a spring or stream of water for the use of the Penitentiary. To the Directors was also given the power of appointing the Warden; the latter to appoint his own assistants.

The first Directors appointed were John S. David and John Claypole. They made their first report to the Legislative Council November 9, 1839. The citizens of the town of Fort Madison had executed a deed conveying ten acres of land for the building site. Amos Ladd was appointed Superintendent of the building June 5, 1839. The building was designed of sufficient capacity to contain one hundred and thirty-eight convicts, and estimated to cost $55,933.90. It was begun on the 9th of July, 1839; the main building and Warden's house were completed in the Fall of 1841. Other additions were made from time to time till (sic) the building and arrangements were all complete according to the plan of the Directors. It has answered the purpose of the State as a Penitentiary for more than thirty years, and during that period many items of practical experience in prison management have been gained.

It has long been a problem how to conduct prisons, and deal with what are called the criminal classes generally, so as to secure their best good and best subserve the interests of the State. Both objects must be taken into consideration in any humanitarian view of the subject. This problem is not yet solved, but Iowa has adopted the progressive and enlightened policy of humane treatment of prisoners and the utilization of their labor for their own support. The labor of the convicts in the Iowa Penitentiary, as in most others in the United States, is let out to contractors, who pay the State a certain stipulated amount therefor, the State furnishing the shops, tools and machinery, as well as the supervision necessary to preserve order and discipline in the prison.

While this is an improvement upon the old solitary confinement system, it still falls short of an enlightened reformatory system that in the future will treat the criminal for mental disease and endeavor to restore him to usefulness in the community. The objections urged against the contract system of disposing of the labor of prisoners, that it brings the labor of honest citizens into competition with convict labor at reduced prices, and is disadvantageous to the State, are not without force, and the system will have no place in the prisons of the future.

It is right that the convict should labor. He should not be allowed to live in idleness at public expense. Honest men labor; why should not they? Honest men are entitled to the fruits of their toil; why should not the convict as well? The convict is sent to the Penitentiary to secure public safety. The State deprives him of his liberty to accomplish this purpose and to punish him for violations of law, but, having done this, the State wrongs both itself and the criminal by confiscating his earnings; because it deprives his family of what justly belongs to them, and an enlightened civilization will ere long demand that the prisoner in the penitentiary, after paying a fair price for his board, is as justly entitled to his net earnings as the good citizen outside its walls, and his family, if he has one, should be entitled to draw his earnings or stated portion of them at stated periods. If he has no family, then if his net earnings should be set aside to his credit and paid over to him at the expiration of his term of imprisonment, he would not be turned out upon the cold charities of a somewhat pharisaical world, penniless, with the brand of the convict upon his brow, with no resource save to sink still deeper in crime. Let Iowa, "The Beautiful Land," be first to recognize the rights of its convicts to the fruits of their labor; keep their children from the alms-house, and place a powerful incentive before them to become good citizens when they return to the busy world again.

Located at Anamosa, Jones County.

By an act of the Fourteenth General Assembly, approved April 23, 1872, William Ure, Foster L. Downing and Martin Heisey were constituted Commissioners to locate and provide for the erection and control of an additional Penitentiary for the State of Iowa. These Commissioners met on the 4th of the following June, at Anamosa, Jones County, and selected a site donated by the citizens, within the limits of the city. L. W. Foster & Co., architects, of Des Moines, furnished the plan, drawings and specifications, and work was commenced on the building on the 28th day of September, 1872. May 13, 1873, twenty convicts were transferred to Anamosa from the Fort Madison Penitentiary. The entire enclosure includes fifteen acres, with a frontage of 663 feet.

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