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The Fort Madison Prison Memory Project
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The Fort Madison Prison Memory Project

Fort Madison Prison Memory Project is a partnership supported by the City of Fort Madison and two of Iowa's universities: University of Iowa and Iowa State University. These institutions are dedicated to the re-purposing and preservation of Iowa Men's Maximum Security Penitentiary, constructed in 1839, for its historic value to the city of Fort Madison and the state of Iowa.  The Fort Madison Prison Memory project's objective is to work towards its preservation and utilization for education and to promote economic development in the city of Fort Madison and the surrounding area. These efforts are dedicated to enhancing and enriching the lives of residents and visitors to Fort Madison and the state of Iowa as a whole. All three participants are engaged in conversation with the state of Iowa's Department of Correction to formulate a decisive and lucrative plan, so that this institution can be preserved in a honorable and productive way.

The nostalgic information is only overshadowed by the folklore and endless stories surrounding this establishment. Fabled to have the inmates initially housed in covered trenches, these prisoners where the laborers who completed the wall, the guards' towers, and the warden's residence. The last structure completed was their cell block, some time in the 1840's. This original cell house and many other structures still stand behind the institution's wall and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The State of Iowa's Department of Correction have constructed a new state-of-the-art facility just north of Fort Madison and will be phasing these historic structures out of operation sometime in the near future.

Fort Madison Prison Memory Project's objective is to devise a plan that utilizes not only the structures, but the records, photography, and mystique of this hallowed institution. The objective is to promote economic growth and education within the state of Iowa. The sociological impact of this institution, along with the history it contains, affords opportunities through multiple venues.  From the study of the sociological impact of prisons and prison life, to the historic structures.  This opportunity offers a glimpse to educators, students and visitors  that not only shows how the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners have changed throughout the last 2 centuries, but a chance to see the different types of architecture used and the industries that flourished behind these walls.  The stories abound of prisoners locked up in the early years who were the real wild west bad guys and the modern day struggles of dealing with the largest inmate population in known history.  The changes in the handling of the prisoners and the movement away from this type of fortress structure to the modern prisons, like the one standing north of Fort Madison, where the prisoners will soon be housed.  The Department of Correction's handling of prisoners and treatment has changed drastically throughout the 175 years the prison has been operating.  There is so much to learn and so much to see.  

Fort Madison started out as a fortress in 1808, with the building of Old Fort Madison as a trading post.  This historic edifice was burned to the ground in 1813 by the soldiers who were fleeing from the Indians in the War of 1812.  The town manifested itself back into existence because early settlers build their homes and businesses where the lone chimney stood, the only noticeable remains of the old Fort.  

The commissioning of the Iowa Territorial Prison happened in January of 1939 and the prisoners were used to construct the next fortress that would prove to be more resilient than the the old fort.  Parts of the wall and some of the structures, including Cell Block 17 still stand inside these walls of this soon-to-be decommissioned prison.  A prison that has stood the test of time.  It has seen the era of slavery, the fighting of a civil war and has housed veterans who have fought in both World Wars and many other wars since then.  It has seen murder and mayhem.  It has witnessed death and destruction, from fires to prison breaks.  Fort Madison Maximum Security Penitentiary should prove to be an exciting destination in so many different ways.  

Visit the City of Fort Madison's Website to learn more about this initiative, Fort Madison Prison Memory Project Page, and follow this collaboration on Facebook at Fort Madison Prison Memory Project.  Fort Madison has a history that is intricate and important to the state of Iowa.  An interesting location with a history that stands the test of time: Fort Madison, where Iowa began.  

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  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
    Thank you for sharing this landmark's rich history with the Travel Iowa community. We've pinned it on Pinterest here:
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