Effects of Luster Heights closure already being felt

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On Feb. 8, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced a suspension of operations at four facilities, including Luster Heights, located near Harpers Ferry. The effects of the decision are already being felt. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Luster Heights Correctional Facility now sits empty, just two weeks after the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) announced a suspension of operations at the facility as well as three other units around the state.

According to DOC Director Jerry Bartruff in a statement on Feb. 8, the move to shutter the doors at Luster Heights—along with the Lodge Unit in Clarinda, the John Bennett Unit in Fort Madison and the Sheldon Residential Treatment Facility—was made in order to cut the DOC’s fiscal year 2017 budget by $5.5 million.

The 69 inmates who resided at Luster Heights at the time of the announcement have since been moved.

“A number of these individuals have already been granted release and will continue to work through their placement plans,” stated Lettie Prell, director of research for the DOC. “Others will come back into the main institution or move to other institutions, possibly closer to where they are planning on returning when released from prison.”

Luster Heights, which is located outside Harpers Ferry, is a minimum-security satellite facility of Anamosa State Penitentiary. Its 13 employees, Prell said, will have the opportunity to work in other units or institutions within the department.

The suspension of operations at Luster Heights has also left local communities, like Marquette and McGregor, in the lurch. The two cities relied on at least 40 hours of help each week, at $5 per day, from one or two Luster Heights inmates.

They’re currently considering replacement options and ways to trim costs.

At its regular meeting Feb. 14, the Marquette Council brought up the possibility of hiring a part-time person, beginning in April, to help with mowing and weed eating, two of the inmates’ largest responsibilities in the community. The item was tabled for further discussion, however.

The McGregor Council, at its Feb. 15 meeting, chose not to make any staffing decisions until they learn more about Luster Heights’ future.

“I think we need to give it time to see how things shake out,” said city administrator Lynette Sander.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” added mayor Harold Brooks. “But I don’t think we should jump into replacing them right away. We need to tighten our belts up and get through.”

Part of “tightening up the belts” will be seen in the city’s new economic development/deputy clerk position. The council approved hiring an individual for the position, which, when posted, was to start off as part-time, then transition to full-time upon the retirement of acting deputy clerk Sue Dolan this spring. 

“With the situation at Luster Heights, we don’t know if we can offer a 40-hours-per-week job,” said councilman Joe Muehlbauer, who noted that the candidates are now aware of this.

“They might have to stay part-time longer than anticipated,” added councilwoman Janet Hallberg.

“If things change at Luster Heights, we’ll re-address it,” Sander noted.

District 28 State Senator Michael Breitbach isn’t optimistic. The DOC cuts, he said, were due to the legislature’s de-appropriation of $112 million, to reduce spending in the current fiscal year. 

“The prison system was told they needed to cut $5.5 million for starters,” he said. “There is another $11 million that will be spread over the executive branch, so it could be more. The prison system decided they couldn’t cut employees at the regular prisons and still be safe. Instead, they closed four of their minimum security locations, including Luster Heights.”

Breitbach said he fought to keep Luster Heights open in 2013, using its lower operating costs and low recidivism rates as ammunition.

“The annual cost to operate Luster Heights was about $1.4 million. I have been told that it would save about $500,000 for the rest of this year,” he said. “I just thought it was a great facility, with the lowest recidivism rate in the state and the lowest cost per inmate in the state, but I have been told by the prison system that employee safety has to come first, and if they make cuts at the full security prisons, it would indeed jeopardize employee safety.” 

While there is always a possibility Luster Heights could re-open, Breitbach cited a declining prison population will make it unlikely.

“As much as I would like to see the site re-open, I don’t hold a lot of hope for that happening,” he remarked. “I’m hoping the state can find another use for the facility.” 

District 56 State Rep. Kristi Hager said she’s working with state entities to do just that.

Two weeks ago, noted Hager, she “was part of a roundtable including law enforcement, hospital administration, mental health representatives,  health providers, EMS and nursing staff to discuss the issues around mental health. I was able to cast a vision for Luster Heights that I brought back with me to Des Moines. I have visited with the directors individually and am setting up a meeting with our department directors from the DNR, DOC and HHS to present this as a viable solution. There was interest in this.” 

Hager said she’s had experience with such a facility, as she and her husband, from 2009 to 2012, ran a faith-based, non-profit transitional living home near Waukon.

“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. “This could be a healthy blend between the three departments and our communities.” 

Until the future of Luster Heights is determined, Prell said the DOC is working cooperatively with the DNR to monitor and maintain the facility.

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