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History

The idea of offenders working while incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons dates back to the opening of Iowa’s first two prisons, the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison in 1839 and the Anamosa State Penitentiary (originally called the Men’s Reformatory) in 1875.

The prisons leased inmate labor to private corporations in order to defray the cost of operating the prisons; the first such industry at Anamosa produced butter tubs. In 1918, this type of inmate leasing was abolished, but the State still realized the necessity of employing offenders to support the cost of running the prisons. The State appropriated $275,000 for the prison to establish their own prison industries. Three commercial industries that could sell to private companies were established along with three industrial industries that provided goods for the maintenance of the inmates. The industries grew quickly and employed upwards of 1,200 inmates until the Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929 was enacted, which restricted the sales of inmate goods to private companies. By the time it took effect in 1934, all commercial shops were either closed or restructured to sell to governmental agencies.

The main goals of industries at this point were two-fold: to support the cost of running the prisons and to produce goods and services utilized by the prisons at a lower cost than purchasing from private companies. The prisons recognized, however, that keeping the offenders employed was beneficial to reducing idle time and improper inmate behavior. Over time, the benefits of teaching offenders real-world job skills was realized, and the purpose of Industries gradually shifted to an offender training program rather than just a money-making program.

Throughout the years Iowa Prison Industries has adapted to the changing times around it. Production of cheese, brooms and even shoe repair have all become a part of IPI’s history. Other industries have proven to be staples, improving with today’s technology.

Today, Iowa Prison Industries shops are designed to provide valuable work training opportunities with transferable skills that the offenders can use upon release as well as to remain financially self-supporting. Each industry, past and present, gives the chance at a better, brighter future for Iowa’s offenders.

IPI’s FY13 Annual Report entitled “Then & Now” provides a more detailed history of Iowa Prison Industries. You can also visit the plant’s section of the IPI website for more information on individual shops with IPI’s plants (Anamosa, Fort Madison, Mitchellville, Rockwell City, Mount Pleasant, Des Moines, and Newton).