Iowa Agency Explores Using Prison Labor to Build Homes

An Iowa agency wants to use inmates to eventually build at least 100 homes a year for low-income individuals around the state, an unusual idea within the expansive prison labor industry that has so far been stalled by a lack of support from lawmakers.

The Iowa Department of Corrections said the program, which was quietly considered but ultimately rejected during the last 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 effort has faced an uphill climb so far. A bill to create the program failed to secure enough support in the Republican-controlled Legislature by missing key deadlines for legislation to advance. 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 launched a program that will involve some inmates building tiny homes. South Dakota inmates have been building homes for more than 20 years, making it the model.

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

Other states occasionally contact 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 communities, many of which struggle with a lack of affordable housing, in part due to 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 problematic.

“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 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 Feb. 12 memo between corrections officials. If the program is fully up and running, state officials envision more than 80 inmates from the nearby medium security facility helping to build at least 100 homes annually 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 create a private nonprofit corporation to run the program with a new board of stakeholders — a mix of individuals involved in the homebuilding industry. Some of their paper trail of work on the program would not be subject to Iowa’s open records laws, though the corporation would be required to submit an annual report on its operations and activities.

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

Key lobbying organizations like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry registered against the main bill that would have created the program. Nicole Crain, a senior vice president for ABI, said the association wants to help address 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.”

Others like the Home Builders Association of Iowa registered for it. Jay Iverson, an executive officer for the Home Builders, said the program shouldn’t be considered competition since it would involve building homes in a price range that’s not very profitable for the private sector. That means there should be more focus on the plus of hiring ex-inmates who will have training 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.