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Iowa agency explores using prison labor to build homes

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa agency wants to use inmates to build at least 100 homes a year for low-income residents throughout the state.

The Iowa Department of Corrections said the program, which was quietly considered but ultimately rejected during the state’s most recent legislative session, would give inmates work training that could reduce their likelihood of returning to prison once they’re released. The agency believes it could also help alleviate Iowa’s shortage of skilled workers and its lack of affordable housing.

“There’s a lot of wins to this program,” said Cord Overton, a corrections spokesman.

Yet the proposal has had an uphill climb so far. A bill to create the program failed to secure enough support in the Republican-controlled Legislature by missing deadlines for the advancement of legislation. It was later added to unrelated budget bills before getting cut. Corrections officials plan to pitch the program again, possibly in the legislative session beginning in January.

Most states use prison labor to produce a range of goods and services, but building affordable housing appears rare. Missouri recently started a program that will have some inmates building tiny homes. South Dakota inmates have been building homes for more than 20 years, making it the model.

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No other state appears to have reproduced South Dakota’s policy, said Mike Harsma, a spokesman for the South Dakota Housing Development Authority, which works with its corrections department to run its program.

Other states occasionally get in touch with Harsma’s office about the program, but few appear to have followed up. An Iowa delegation traveled to South Dakota earlier this year.

“To my knowledge there’s nobody that’s doing it, and it is surprising,” he said.

The Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, a voluntary organization of local governments, first pitched the housing program to corrections officials about four years ago, and the idea picked up steam last year.

Mike Norris, the commission’s executive director, said the group represents 35 mostly rural places, many of which struggle with a lack of affordable housing, in part because of inconsistent demand for construction and lower profits.

“We want to look for every opportunity, so we can help our communities be resilient and survive,” he said about his push for the program. “They’re worth it.”

Corrections officials estimate Iowa inmates would get paid about $1 an hour to participate in the housing program. That’s the same average they’re paid through Iowa Prison Industries, which already oversees inmates who make products and furniture sold to government entities and other approved groups. The division sought up to $2 million to start the program, arguing it would later be self-funded.

Such prison programs trouble Angela Hanks, a former director at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning national think tank. Despite her support of prison apprenticeship programs, Hanks said paying prison inmates below the federal minimum wage for their work is troublesome.

“We should be able to ensure that low-income people have housing and ensure that people who are incarcerated aren’t exploited,” she said. “I think it presents a little bit of a false choice in terms of what is necessary to ensure that low-income people have access to safe affordable housing.”

If the proposal is revisited next year and approved, 12 acres of land next to the Newton state prison in central Iowa would become a fenced-in construction zone where prisoners could build single-story 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom homes, according to a memo dated Feb. 12. State officials envision more than 80 inmates from the nearby medium-security prison eventually helping to build at least 100 houses a year that can be shipped around the state.

“The low cost of offender allowances, together with bulk purchases of materials such as roof shingles, lumber and drywall, will allow a turnkey selling price of about $120,000,” according to the document.

Iowa Prison Industries also wants approval to establish a private nonprofit corporation to run the program with a new board of stakeholders — mostly representatives of the homebuilding industry. Some of the documents they would generate would not be subject to Iowa’s open-records laws, although the corporation would be required to submit an annual report on its operations and activities.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, put $1 million for the housing project into budget recommendations she released in January, and an aide said the governor remains supportive of the policy.

Big lobbying organizations like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry registered against the main bill that would have set up the program. Nicole Crain, a senior vice president for ABI, said the association wants to respond to affordable housing concerns but doesn’t believe in government competing with the private sector. She expects ABI to review the subject ahead of the next legislative session, but added: “I don’t see our position on this issue changing.”

Other groups like the Home Builders Association of Iowa have registered themselves as being in favor of the policy. Jay Iverson, an executive officer for the Home Builders, said the proposal won’t subject private builders to more competition since it would involve building homes in a price range that’s not very profitable for the private sector. He said the emphasis should instead be on the ex-inmates who will have to be trained in specialties like heating and cooling, electrical, plumbing and roofing.

“We need as many people as possible in all those various areas of construction,” he said.

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