LUSTER HEIGHTS — The state correctional facility that looks more like a Boy Scout camp than a prison is again on the budget chopping block.
After wriggling off in 2003 and 2010, the Luster Heights Prison Camp, the last stop before release for many inmates, is again slated for closure under Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed 2014 budget.
Closing it would be a mistake, according to Luster Heights staff and officials in nearby communities.
“These guys are going to be your neighbors when they get out, and we are helping them become productive and law-abiding citizens,” said Kris Kovarik, a counselor at the camp for the past 14 years.
Branstad’s proposal calls for closing the nearly full 88-bed minimum-security camp and diverting to other prisons its $1.6 million annual appropriation, which covers the salaries and benefits of 14 full-time employees.
Doing so, camp officials say, would be a disservice to the inmates, who receive counseling and training that prepares them for a successful re-entry into society; to taxpayers, who benefit from the camp’s thrifty operation; and to northeast Iowans, who benefit from the cheap labor of inmates working for local government and non-profit entities.
Though prison rules prohibit inmate interviews, it seems they, too, would oppose the proposed closure, based on the rarity of escape attempts.
Despite the lack of a fence or security guards, “we have not had a walk-off in eight years,” said Maj. Kevin Hagemann, the camp’s security manager.
Inmates have earned their way to Luster Heights through good attitude and behavior, and they don’t want to blow it, he said.
If Luster Heights were situated near Des Moines, it would be considered a model for state correctional facilities rather than a target for closure, said Larry Schellhammer, chairman of the Allamakee County supervisors, whose conservation and roads departments stretch taxpayer dollars with inmate labor.
“It makes no sense to close an efficient, successful facility so funds can be diverted to a more expensive one,” Schellhammer said.
The annual cost to keep an inmate at Luster Heights is $19,559, which compares with the systemwide per inmate cost of $30,456. The relative lack of security holds down costs, of course, but Luster Heights’ high degree of self-sufficiency also plays a role.
Wood cut and salvaged by the inmates provides 95 percent of the facility’s heat, and produce raised in the unit’s several acres of gardens help hold down food bills.
Much of the wood comes from the nearby Yellow River State Forest, where inmates salvage the treetops and other leavings of timber harvest operations, said Bob Honeywell, a Department of Natural Resources forester there..
Luster Heights inmates also plant replacement trees and maintain trails in the 8,500-acre Yellow River State Forest, Honeywell said.
“We would get a lot less done without them,” he said.
So would Waukon, whose employment of Luster Heights inmates has saved the city at least $50,000 in labor costs during the past three years, said City Council member John Ellingson.
Under 28E agreements, the inmates are paid $5 for up to a 10-hour day. The value of their labor to participating agencies was estimated at $234,000 in 2012.
Good for inmates
The benefit goes both ways, according to camp staff.
Regular, productive work teaches the inmates marketable skills — woodworking and landscaping, for example — as well as such desirable traits as teamwork, responsibility and reliability, said Kovarik, one of three substance abuse counselors at the camp.
About 85 percent of Luster Heights inmates participate in drug treatment, which is required for their release and critical for their successful re-entry to society.
The effectiveness of their treatment is reflected in the unit’s recidivism rate, defined by the Department of Corrections as “the percent of offenders released from prison who return within three years.”
According to a 2007 Department of Corrections report, Luster Heights had a 22.7 percent rate of recidivism, which compares with an overall statewide rate of 31.8 percent.