Sperfslage shares insight into Anamosa prison

Bill Sperfslage, warden of the Anamosa prison, was the keynote speaker at the annual Monticello Chamber Banquet on Jan. 24 at the Eagles Club. Born and raised in Monticello, Sperfslage said he loves working in his hometown area, and thoroughly enjoys his job.

Sperfslage shows contraband items to Dan and Joan Dailey during his presentation at the MACC Banquet. This particular item taken from an ASP inmate was a plastic table knife with a razorblade melted to the side. It was hidden inside an empty tube of toothpaste. (Photos by Kim Brooks)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

300 people, with 212 of those correctional security staff. They currently house over 930 inmates, with 221 of those serving lifetime sentences. The average age of an inmate in the ASP is 39 years, with an average sentence of 27 years, nine months, and one day. Seventy-four percent of the ASP inmates are incarcerated for violent offenses.

     However, ASP Warden Bill Sperfslage feels blessed to do what he loves.

     Sperfslage was the keynote speaker during the Jan. 24 Monticello Chamber Banquet.

     As someone who was born and raised in Monticello, he said it’s nice to be working back “home.” Sperfslage has been with the ASP since he was 20 years old, saying he essentially grew up with several of the inmates who are there still today.

     “It’s not exactly like the movies,” he told the crowd. “It’s not ‘Shawshank Redemption.’”

     Sperfslage offered a show-and-tell opportunity for those in attendance, passing around contraband they’ve confiscated from several inmates over the years. This included a toothbrush that was turned into a makeshift shank, an empty tube of toothpaste that secretly held a plastic table knife with a razorblade melted to the tip, a charger for a cassette player that was modified into a tattoo gun, and a piece of Plexiglass turned into a shank. Suffice to say, these items peaked everyone’s curiosity.

     Ft. Madison was actually the first prison in the Iowa territory. It started in 1839 before Iowa officially became a state in 1846.

     “Unfortunately, the correctional business was growing,” said Sperfslage. This led to the opening of the ASP 40 years later in 1873. “We got to a point where we couldn’t hold everybody at Ft. Madison and the legislature decided we needed another penitentiary in Iowa.”

     Sperfslage said this move could be credited to Iowa Senator John KcKean, the great grandfather of current state Rep. Andy McKean. “He managed to pass legislation to establish an additional penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa.”

     Aside from the general prison population, the ASP also houses youthful offenders who were adjudicated as adults and a number of protected custody offenders. Sperfslage said both are kept separate from the general inmate population.

     With the vision for the Department of Corrections being to create opportunities for safer communities, Sperfslage said the ASP has a difficult task ahead for itself.

     “We actually do a lot of good things at the penitentiary,” he said.

     He said they work with the inmates who are not serving life sentences to become contributors to society.

     “They’re your neighbors,” he said.

     Rather than keep these men locked away for years and years, he said it’s actually less of a burden on the taxpayer to help them become productive citizens. The average cost to house an inmate in the ASP is $90 a day, about $36,000 a year.

     The ASP focuses on three goals for its inmates: education, job skills, and reconnecting them back into a community. Sperfslage shared that the ASP has six Kirkwood Community College employees and one Grant Wood AEA staff member all working within the facility.

     “We have one fellow who is working on a master’s degree right now in statistics,” he said.

     When it comes to job skills, the inmates are taught the importance of showing up for work every day, being reliable employees, doing good work, and taking pride in what they take on. The ASP has a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide an apprenticeship program for some of the inmates to learn a trade useful for their professional life outside of the prison.

     “We’ve released guys who go right out to journeyman-level work in everything from culinary arts to welding, metal fabrication, wiring, and construction trades,” said Sperfslage. “Another thing to set them up for success.”

     To help the inmates form a tie with the local community, the prison brings in many different types of religious leaders, friends and family members of the inmates “who are positive influences on them.

     “It’s to create a support network for them when they get out,” added Sperfslage. “It keeps them from turning back to their old ways.”

     Right now, the inmates in Anamosa represent about 14 different religions.

     There is also a diverse racial breakdown as well: 30 percent African American, 60-plus percent Caucasian, 3 percent Hispanic, and Native Americans and Asians making up the remaining percent.

     Sperfslage said the success of the prison is based on the number of inmates who do not return, or recidivism. The recidivism rate across Iowa is between 31 and 32 percent. Sperfslage said while the business of the chamber is to bring repeat customers back into the businesses, he doesn’t want to see repeat customers. “I’m good with one and one,” he joked. “I tell guys all the time that you don’t need to come back. Someone else will take your bed.”

     Unfortunately, several factors hinder that recidivism, one being mental health. Forty-five of the Anamosa inmates have some sort of mental health disorder.

     “Around the country, jails and prisons have become the defacto mental health providers,” said Sperfslage. “That’s not a good situation.”

     Gang-association also hinders an inmate’s return rate. Another 40 percent of the ASP inmates are known gang members. “It’s a very significant thing,” said Sperfslage.

     The recidivism rate for gang members and those with mental health issues rises to over 60 percent.

     “We do the best we can,” Sperfslage added. “About two-thirds of those guys will be back within three years, rejoining us.”

     The ASP also works with local communities. Last summer, the ASP put together a 28E program with the City of Anamosa that allows low-risk inmates to work for the city in a variety of ways.

     “I’m not putting axe murderers out there in the community,” joked Sperfslage.

     All in all, the job of warden of the ASP is a role Sperfslage quite enjoys.

     “I have been really blessed in doing something that I just love, getting out and going to work every day. That’s something not everybody is fortunate enough to have in their career,” he said.


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