It is easy to disregard the importance of the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa. After all, the intent of this structure was to incarcerate social deviants away from the rest of society. A prison’s function is to protect society from those whom may harm it or its people. Today’s Maximum Security Penitentiaries house the worst of the worst. But have you ever considered that maybe this has not always been the case? That maybe society’s view of prisoners has even changed and evolved into something different since the beginning of this type of organization?
There is no doubt that the hallowed cells and halls that make up the Iowa State Maximum Security Prison in Fort Madison would have some amazing stories to tell. If only walls could talk. These walls have witnessed murders and executions. They have been the backdrop to crime and punishment. This institution has been standing the test of time for the last 175 years. Considering the date of 1839 in itself is mindboggling. The year of 1839 saw the introduction of photography using glass negatives in order to produce a picture. This technology, that required individuals to hold still for extended periods of time, while the photograph was being taken was the mode used by the prison to record the physical likenesses of the prisoners into the 1950’s. To think these photos were taken with technology just as old as the institution.
To take the date, 1839, and apply it in context to the historical happenings our country has been through is incredible. It was constructed only 63 years after we declared our independence from Great Britain. The United stated had only 8 Presidents elected to office. Martin Van Buren was sworn in 2 years before. Abraham Lincoln turned 30-years-old and was destined to become a member of congress in 1846. He wasn’t elected President until 1861. Along with his election came the Civil War. The Fort Madison Prison, which started out a territorial prison, would have stood overlooking the Mississippi River for 22 years by this time. It was 75-years-old at the start of WWI and was 106 at the end of WWII.
The prison’s Death Row has been demolished and the gallows no longer stand. Plans are to take down the old industrial building in the near future. The prison continues to change and adapt to meet the needs of the inmates and the staff. When it is decommissioned, it will be one of the longest running institutions in the history of the United States. Not only will its buildings be a testament to history, but its records and documented will be used as learning tools in classrooms and campuses across the United States in terms of Sociology and the study of Human Behaviors. The future of Iowa State Penitentiary is the focus of the Fort Madison Prison Memory Project. In the fabled quote of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” So let us take this massive edifice and create the memory it deserves as our oldest institution in the state of Iowa & the oldest prison west of the Mississippi: Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, where Iowa began.