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Iowa History Daily: June 4 - Anamosa State Penitentiary

Iowa History Daily: On June 4, 1872, a three-person commission formed by order of the 14th Iowa General Assembly selected a site within Anamosa’s city limits to build a prison. Still a part of the Iowa Department of Corrections today, the prison also hosts a museum just outside the current prison walls in the former barn and cheese-making facility.

After the approval of plans to purchase the Jones County land, commission an architect, and acquire a quarry, construction got underway early in 1873. During May of 1873, twenty inmates officially transferred from the Fort Madison Penitentiary under the supervision of Warden Craig to build the jail which would hold them.

While construction on the imposing structure built of rock quarried in Stone City rose, prisoners lived inside a 16’ wooden stockade built around the 11-acre site. By January of 1875 the prisoners completed work on the first cell house which featured 72 4’6” x 8’ cells. The work continued as the name officially changed to Iowa State Penitentiary at Anamosa in 1884.

During the early years, a diverse prison population developed as the state sent men, women, and those deemed “insane” to the still developing prison. All men convicted in the northern half of the state also found their way to Anamosa. Twenty years after construction began, officials still considered the prison ‘half-finished’ during the 1890s.

Changing names again in 1907, the state renamed the prison the Iowa State Reformatory and hosted all juvenile prisoners held in the state. Women remained in the population until the completion of the Women’s Reformatory opened in Rockwell City during 1918. The opening of the Eldora Annex and Training School in 1945 siphoned off most juvenile inmates, and The Iowa Security Medical Facility eventually took on prisoners with “significant mental health needs” in 1969.

By 1996, the prison population at Anamosa climbed to over 1,500. The following year officials again renamed the facility to its current designation as the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Today, the Designation 5 Medium/Maximum Security Prison hosts just under 1,000 inmates. Noted serial killer John Wayne Gacy served time at the facility from 1968-1970.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, even conviction-free Iowans can voluntarily visit the museum and original buildings for $3. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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