Gov. Branstad opens prisons funded by debt


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Gov. Terry Branstad cut the ribbons at two new prison facilities last week. Although he disapproved of their funding, many Democratic leaders supported it.

Together, the prisons cost a total of $217 million. The money for these new prisons was borrowed, a decision made by former Gov. Chet Culver.

“I didn’t like the idea of funding it with debt,” Branstad told Radio Iowa last week. “I think most Iowans think this kind of debt doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

The new prisons were part of the I-JOBS program, a state investment program started in 2009.

While Branstad opposes the way these facilities were funded, Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, is in favor of funding the facilities through bonds, which he says were purchased at an unusually low rate.

“We got a record, killer good price on those bond rates,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the prisons also provide both short-term construction jobs and long-term prison guard jobs.

Branstad presided over the opening of the $68 million expansion to the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville on Oct. 28.

John Baldwin, the director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, said it would provide new medical capabilities.

“We’ve added approximately 60 new beds,” he said. “These are medical beds; they’ll enable better medical and psychiatric care for the inmates.”

The other facility Branstad opened on Oct. 30 in Fort Madison is the Iowa State Penitentiary, which replaced a prison built before Iowa was a state.

“The old Iowa State Penitentiary was nearly 175 years old,” Baldwin said. “It was very expensive to run. The new prison is much more efficient.”

Baldwin noted that the purpose of the new facilities is not to handle more prisoners in the future. In fact, Iowa’s prison rate has dropped during Branstad’s time in office — in 2011, Iowa had 8,850 inmates, which has since dropped to 8,230. Baldwin said Iowa’s prisons are still overpopulated, and these facilities do not address that problem.

Taylor said the drop in the number of prisoners is due in part to new rules for the Board of Parole.

“The Board of Parole was not functioning properly,” he said. “We changed the rules so a quorum can be reached more easily.”

Baldwin said the drop in the number of prisoners is also partly because of a decline in repeat offenses.

“The recidivism rate has dropped,” Baldwin said. “That means we’re releasing more prisoners at the right time, when they’re rehabilitated.”

Lettie Snell, the director of Research at the Iowa Department of Corrections, said the recidivism rate dropped from 33.9 percent in 2004 to 30.8 percent in 2009. According to Snell, support programs for black prisoners, particularly, have helped to reduce recidivism.

Branstad wants to continue reducing the number of state prisoners in Iowa, each of which cost taxpayers over $33,000 a year, according to the Iowa State Department of Corrections.

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