Marquette, McGregor state their case for Luster Heights

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The cities of Marquette and McGregor aren’t taking the closure of Luster Heights Correctional Facility lying down. 

A contingent from the two cities—including Marquette city manager Denise Schneider, McGregor city administrator Lynette Sander and councilwoman Janet Hallberg, and former District 56 State Rep. Patti Ruff—visited the state capitol in Des Moines last week, advocating for the re-opening of the facility, which is located outside Harpers Ferry.

The Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) announced a suspension of operations at Luster Heights, along with three other units around the state, on Feb. 8. The move was made, said DOC Director Jerry Bartruff, in order to cut the Department of Corrections’ fiscal year 2017 budget by $5.5 million.

A minimum-security satellite facility of Anamosa State Penitentiary, Luster Heights employed 13 people and housed 69 inmates at the time of its closure, according to the DOC.

All inmates at Luster Heights had jobs at the facility, either cooking, cleaning, cutting wood, tending the gardens or performing other maintenance tasks. Many learned woodworking skills. Some also had jobs outside the facility, working for the Iowa DNR in Yellow River State Forest, or in area communities, like Marquette and McGregor. 

The city of Marquette had one, and sometimes two, inmate workers who put in 40 hours per week. Two more worked 40-hour weeks for the city of McGregor. Their labor consisted of mowing and weed trimming, trash pick-up, shoveling, city building and vehicle maintenance, community beautification and more. According to the cities, it cost them just $5 per day.

In order to help fill the void, the cities plan to hire part-time grounds/maintenance workers. That unforeseen expense, however, has forced them to tighten their budgets in other areas. They’ve warned that some duties the inmates performed may not be done, or at least done as quickly.

Since the closure was announced, city leaders have continually shared their predicament, through letters, with local legislators State Senator Michael Breitbach and State Rep. Kristi Hager. They’ve also written to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, DOC Director Bartruff and the warden at Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Ruff, who’s from McGregor, suggested they head to Des Moines to lobby for Luster Heights.

“It helps to put a face in front of legislators when dealing with an issue,” she said.

Falling back on her legislative experience, Ruff helped the officials plan their visit for last week, around the time she knew the budget would be released. 

In fact, the governor’s latest budget proposal, released early last week, gives a $4.9 million dollar increase to the justice system. Ruff said this would bring the justice system roughly back to where it was  before the cuts, and before the closure of Luster Heights.

She set up meetings with as many key people as she could regarding the justice system. That included Republican Rep. Gary Worthan, who is one of the chairs of the justice systems budget committee. Ruff said Worthan is very familiar with Luster Heights and how it’s been on the chopping block in the past. His words weren’t very encouraging, however.

“After speaking with him, there was an overall sense that there’s just no money. The budget is so tight,” Ruff said. “The cuts the Department of Corrections made were ones that wouldn’t put the public at risk.”

In addition, the Mar-Mac contingent met with House Minority Leader Mark Smith, Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg and Democratic Senator Bob Dvorsky, who is on the justice system appropriations subcommittee. 

With them, the discussion was like a roundtable, Hallberg commented.

“They asked questions and there was a lot of back and forth,” she said. “They actually listened.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case when they met with Breit-bach and Hager, noted the city officials.

Sander said Breitbach didn’t offer any solutions, instead blaming poor fiscal management and prison underpopulation for the situation.

“Hager really never addressed Luster Heights as part of the Department of Corrections,” Schneider added. “She addressed it in regard to mental health.”

In a statement to the North Iowa Times in February, Hager proposed turning Luster Heights into a mental health facility.

“I believe Luster Heights can become a place for people in crisis, an ambulatory treatment center and a non-profit component in meeting the needs of people with mental health,” she shared.

While the city officials advocated for Luster Heights in large part because of how the closure affects them, they also did so for the inmates, who they said have become parts of their communities.

“They were the boys here. They were part of the community,” Hallberg said. “They were here to learn how to interact with people. They had a job, and they did it well.”

Hallberg said workers took pride in what they did for the community, whether it was watering the flowers in the hanging baskets along McGregor’s Main Street, maintaining the parks or putting up Christmas decorations.

“It was something they could say, ‘We did that,’” she remarked.

Hallberg said she’s kept in touch with some of the former workers and noted they have jobs and are doing well.

Schneider wondered if, without Luster Heights, that would have been the case.

“Luster Heights was helping to integrate people back into society. It was a lower key facility,” she said. “Now, they’re putting them back in with violent offenders. You wonder how going back there—exposing them to that and being in fear—will affect them. We treat them like people, not numbers.”

Sander said it’s too bad Luster Heights couldn’t have been made into a model facility, citing its lower recidivism rates and operating costs.

Ruff said it likely would have been championed by the state had it been located in an urban area, rather than rural Allamakee County.

For now, the cities will keep hoping for a change.

“We hope the new budget will have money to reopen it,” Schneider said.

They will also continue to write.

“We’re still sending letters,” said Sander. “I don’t know if it will help, but we have to try.”

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