Political Mercury

October 28, 2010
By Douglas Burns


Inside the walls, wires of Fort Dodge prison


A few years ago, when I first visited the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, the medium-security prison had an edgy vibe that matched its relatively younger inmate population.

The 18 to 20-something men in the joint carried themselves in the yard with a more menacing air than in other Iowa Department of Corrections facilities.

Turns out there was an issue with a caged collection of offenders on shorter bids, full of rage, anger.

“A lot of people considered it gladiator camp,” said Warden James McKinney, a veteran of the Iowa Department of Corrections who moved from Rockwell City’s prison to Fort Dodge recently to help address problems.

McKinney is regarded by Board of Corrections member and former Lt. Gov. Art Neu as one of the more effective leaders in the state’s prisons.

With Neu last week I toured cell blocks, the yard, library, kitchen and talked with prisoners — some close to leaving for another chance on the outside and others with, as they call them, “life bids.” As we were leaving the prison the inmate all-star flag football game was set to begin.

When McKinney came to the prison he quickly shipped out a passel of young inmates and brought in older replacements to serve as mentors and give Fort Dodge a steadier feel.

“We calmed the place down quite a bit,” McKinney said. “We got some older guys in here, and that makes a difference.”

He said prison is much like life on the outside in at least one respect: conflicts between groups of young men who spend a lot of time together often turn physical.

“That’s what they do at 18 to 22,” he said.

Last Monday, the prison population in Fort Dodge stood at 1,265, well above the capacity of 1,162. About 25 percent of the inmates have no high school diploma and can’t claim a sixth-grade reading level.

There are some educational and work programs, but even a casual observer, the occasional visitor to the system, can see that idle time rules the roost. Private-sector labor doesn’t want competition from cheaper prison workers, and the general public has no stomach for serious spending on schooling and training programs, believing such things are soft on crime.

That said, 97 percent of the people here will be on the streets again.

Correctional counselor Todd McCubbin said one crucial predictor for reform is simply age. About a third of the offenders in Iowa will be repeat visitors to prison. Older guys seem to have a better chance of making it if for no other reason than the exhaustion factor with a life of crime and prison.

“The younger guys aren’t ready to change,” McCubbin said.

Hence, the moniker “gladiator camp.”

One of the last stops we made was at a meeting of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility Veterans Organization — led by 61-year-old commander Arthur Williams of Waterloo who has been in prison since 1972 at age 23 on a first-degree murder conviction.

Williams is one of the men McKinney looks to as a leader, a role model for the way to do time.

“You gotta understand, this was a young man’s camp,” Williams said.

Williams told us about the many projects the military veterans’ group is doing to raise money. Several involve assisting monument developments honoring veterans in Iowa towns.

His presentation was impressive, and Williams is a 61-year-old man serving time for what a 23-year-old did.

Is he for real? Is he the apparently reformed man presented to visitors, or would he strike again on the outside.

“He’s serious,” McKinney said. “I wouldn’t give you the con guys.”

It’s probably a moot point anyway. The likelihood of a gubernatorial commutation is remote. The Seattle Times just carried a story detailing the deadly aftermath of the release of a felon from an Arkansas prison after then Gov. Mike Huckabee granted clemency. The prisoner, Maurice Clemmons, would later kill four police officers, a tragedy that weighs on the presidential ambitions of Huckabee.

That case is a severe one as Clemmons reportedly had a record of violence in prison that went underreported as the process and pols spit him out into society.

But politicians aren’t likely to break down the specifics of this case and others like it. It is simply a cautionary tale. Does Gov. Chet Culver or former and perhaps future Gov. Terry Branstad want to take full ownership of the actions of a murderer released to the streets, staking his considerable political career on the man forever staying clean? CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.


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