State senators toured the grounds of Newton Correctional Facility and witnessed firsthand the kinds of programs and amenities the prison utilizes to rehabilitate its inmates and how it will prepare them for a future project to address rural Iowa’s housing shortage.
Iowa Senators Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant; Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine; and Mark Segebart, R-Vail, all attended the April 11 tours conducted by Newton Correctional Facility staff.
The Newton prison, Nunn said, is going to be the first in the state to follow South Dakota’s Governor’s House Program, which utilizes a prison inmate workforce to create affordable homes. The program, in turn, teaches convicted persons important trade skills “to better prepare them for life outside of prison,” according to the South Dakota Housing Development Authority website.
Primarily led by Iowa Association of Councils of Governments (ICOG), the stick-built housing project will be operated by the nonprofit group Homes for Iowa, Inc. to address what the trade association has described as an economic development issue. According to ICOG, three out of 10 Iowans rent their homes, and the demand for rural housing is in short supply but high demand.
“Two key successes come out of this that I think Newton is doing really well is, one, we’re giving folks a meaningful or tangible skillset ... once they leave prison. And, two, the other return on this is we are filling a void that’s not being currently met by the commercial housing sector,” Nunn said. “That’s low-income, high quality homes.”
Inmates enrolled in this program would build two- to three-bedroom homes valued at $100,000 to $120,000. Once finished, the houses will be transported to the home site of a rural community. Nunn said the project would likely focus its efforts in central Iowa but reasoned the homes could be shipped throughout the state.
“We’re talking a first-time home buyer can afford a home ... where the marketplace really is not providing that,” Nunn said. “Particularly in communities that are not growing as fast as, say, communities in Polk County.”
In addition to providing economic growth, the program would create an outlet for inmates to reintegrate themselves into society through the adaptation of trade skills and further reduce their chances to reoffend. Nunn said “the worst thing we can possibly do” is release inmates on parole six weeks before their sentence is up and tell them to “go find a job.”
As vice chair of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee, Nunn argued that particular approach would only put offenders “in an environment which they came from” and would not set them up for success. ICOG’s rural Iowa housing project could be an answer to that process and further address sentencing reform, a bipartisan issue in the Iowa Legislature, Nunn said.
“How we can get people through a correctional facility in a way that’s meaningful for their rehabilitation but also help them in that transition phase to get them into a worthwhile job when they leave prison so they don’t recidivate at a higher rate?” he said. “We’ve seen these work programs are probably the best key to success, whether it’s the men’s prison in Newton or the women’s correctional institution over in Mitchellville.”
Newton Correctional Facility Warden Kris Weitzell said staff encourage legislators to visit the two prison sites in town: the correctional facility, a medium security male institution able to house 973 inmates, and the correctional release center, a minimum security facility that can house about 388 male inmates.
Deputy warden Jeremy Larson said Newton Correctional Facility offers a lot of programs to its inmates, including sex offender treatment and moral reconation therapy. DMACC also contracts its educational services by providing life skills and computing skills courses, as well as welding programs and other trade apprenticeships. Grinnell College also partners with the prison to offer specific courses.
“We really have treatment opportunities and treatment programming and educational services going Monday through Friday,” Larson said. “We probably have more treatment opportunities than some places or some other facilities. We’re a medium facility so we really focus on treatment.”
Inmates of Newton Correctional Facility, he added, receive a lot of skills before re-entering the community. One of the keys to success in the transition is having viable employment, a means to make a living to take care of themselves or their family.
Nunn said the Newton Correctional Facility staff are working with inmates every day to make sure they “have a productive role in society” when they leave. The first day in for an inmate, he added, should be focused on “getting them acclimated back into the community.”
“We want to have folks that are able to come back into society and become productive family members, productive members of the community and even productive taxpayers,” Nunn said.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org