Go inside Iowa’s oldest prison this April

FORT MADISON, Iowa – Tickets are now on sale for the public to tour the historic Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) over the weekend of April 14-15.

You may walk the grounds at your own pace and meet retired staff stationed throughout the facility, but tour guides are available to escort you as well. All visitors will receive detailed maps outlining the ISP’s history in key areas, as shown in the below video of a tour that WQAD took last year.

Built in 1839, “The Fort,” as it’s commonly called, is steeped in the history of evolving incarceration methods over time, as well as the stories of employees, prisoners, and their crimes.

The ISP was saved from ruin and turned into a tourist attraction by the non-profit Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, whose mission it is to preserve the prison for education and economic purposes. The financial reason is of particular interest for Lee County, one of Iowa’s most economically struggling areas.

While the non-profit has an agenda for turning the prison into a museum, it is doing so with sensitivity toward the prisoners and crime victims, according to Patti Wachtendorf, who told the Des Moines Register she was one of the ISP’s longest working employees.

“You have a lot of families of people who lived here or who were victims of the people who lived here, so we need to do it respectfully,” Wachtendorf said. “People died here. People lived here. This isn’t a joke.”

Tickets are only available online at www.iowastatepen.com. Souvenirs are currently for sale online and during the tour.

Visitors must be 18 years or older or accompanied by a parent or guardian. Children under 12 are free with the donation of a non-perishable food pantry item. Proceeds go toward funding the Historic Structures Report necessary for any future planned use.