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Anamosa State Penitentiary

Inmates Build Skills For Success

By James Dykeman, Staff Writer
On April 24, 2019

  

Entrance To Anamosa State Penitentiary PHOTO BY Anamosa State Penitentiary

 

Kirkwood and Education at Anamosa State Penitentiary 

 

Located in Anamosa, just a few miles north of Mount Vernon and Cornell College is the Anamosa State Penitentiary (ASP). Built over the span of 25 years, from 1873 to 1899, with continuous expansion through 1937, ASP has continuously served the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDC) for over a century. ASP is a medium-max security facility housing approximately 1,000 male inmates, most famously notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy in 1968 and John Wesley Elkins, an eleven-year old boy sentenced to life for murder, in 1890. It is also home to approximately 300 eligible students who need educational services provided by Kirkwood Community College (KCC). Within these walls the importance of education is found everywhere, from the warden’s office to instructors, administrators and students. It is here that Kirkwood staff work tirelessly to educate the steady flow of offenders, some with short stays and others serving life sentences with no possibility for parole. 

From the outside, the massive structure looks more like a gothic style European castle than a prison, an example of the imposing architecture of the era and a continual reminder that its purpose still serves despite the passage of time. Kirkwood has been a presence at ASP since 1967, serving those who lack primary and secondary education. Carla AndorfIowaWORKS director of Skills to Employment and interim director of Secondary Education with Kirkwood, described the college’s role in the IDC and ASP. “Kirkwood provides high school completion and adult basic education services to individuals at ASP...  We test students, appropriately place them into classes or high school distance learning programs based upon their scores and situation, instruct classes and help students build skills to successfully take the five tests of the HiSET exam, which provides them with a high school equivalency diploma (what many people call a G.E.D.). She added, “Our teams also coordinate with Kirkwood Continuing Education to bring in short term certificate training that can help students be successful within the walls, as well as when they leave.  Trainings may include OSHA 10, forklift, computer basics and landscaping.”  

 

 A Word With The Warden, a Non-Traditional Student 

 

Entering the penitentiary, the limestone walls immediately give way to the main foyer, where several trustees in red jumpsuits sweep and mop the floors less than a yard from freedom. Directly to the left is the warden’s office, complete with marble fireplaces, ancient wood paneling and worn leather chairs. This is where Warden Bill Sperfslage conducts the business of the penitentiary; focusing on employment, apprenticeships and education as pathways to rehabilitation for life inside, and for those who get a second chance, outside the prison walls.   

Sperfslage has worked off and on at ASP since 1979, starting as a correctional officer in the school and then working in various roles before being appointed as warden four years ago. Having worked closely with the instructors at ASP, Sperfslage explained, “I have found through my career that the educators in corrections, the level of dedication..., that’s a difficult job. I go over there and watch the patience and dedication of the Kirkwood staff working with these guys and how they help them achieve, it’s really quite amazing.”   

Sperfslage’s emphasis on the importance of education is shown in his experience as a non-traditional college student himself, having received his four-year degree in Criminal Justice remotely from Bellevue University in Nebraska. Sperfslage explained, “I was very blessed through my career in getting a number of promotions... and at some point, I realized that if I was going to move any further, I needed to shore up my education...clearly if I was ever going to be considered for a warden’s position, I needed to have my education in order.” As many Kirkwood students can relate to, Sperfslage gained his degree entirely online while continuing to work full time as the deputy warden.  

According to Sperfslage, “I spent the better part of five years taking courses year-round in addition to working a pretty time-consuming job...it was a challenge and well worth it.” His advice to other students is, “You’ve got to believe that you can do it and I’m in a position now where I look back and scratch my head and think, how did I juggle all these things? But you figure out ways to manage your time. Sometimes when we went on vacations, in the evenings before I went to bed, I would stay up on my laptop doing papers. You make some adjustments and make it work.” Sperfslage continues, “My big advice is to have confidence that you can do it and make the commitment. I was very proud to have done that and it felt very good when I got that degree. The end certainly justifies the work you go through. I highly recommend it...it opened doors that certainly weren’t available before.”  

 

View of a walkway through the penitentiary heading to the school PHOTO BY Juana Jones, Co-Managing Editor

 

 Through The Prison, Across The Yard, and Into The School 

 

Just down the hall from the warden’s office, after signing in and being cleared by security, is the long walk through several corridors and stairwells, then outside past the cell houses. There you’ll find the nondescript building that houses the classrooms. Entering the school is not unlike entering Linn Hall at the main campus, except where you may find a café or bake sale, a corrections officer sits ensuring that only those who are meant to be in class can proceed.    

Before entering ASP, offenders are given an aptitude test, known as the Test for Adult Basic Education (TABE), which determines their level of education. At Anamosa, anyone who cannot read at a sixth-grade level is required to attend classes until they achieve that minimum level of literacy. For offenders between the ages of 18 and 21, acquisition of a high school equivalency, known as the HiSET, is required. Older offenders are encouraged to seek the HiSET but are not required to do so. However, one cannot advance beyond the second of four trust levels without the HiSET and will be barred from participating in work opportunities or apprenticeships. Mirroring life in the outside world, limited education at ASP means limited access to freedoms and opportunities.  

Upon entering the school, past the classrooms into the administrative offices, Nicole Chambers, a former high school science teacher and current education coordinator, explained why literacy is so important as she expanded on Kirkwood’s mission at ASP. “If you’re under sixth grade reading level, you’re not really able to pick up a newspaper or instructional manual and get much out of it. Our first and foremost mission is to make sure that every man that’s within the walls is reading at least at a sixth-grade level.” Chamber’s continues, “Once we’ve met that goal...our secondary mission is to make sure that they have a high school diploma. If you look at our populace overall there are about 25-30% that need services from Kirkwood...”   

When asked about college-level courses, Chambers explained the difficulties inmates face. “...Men have to find their own funding... some of them work within the walls to scrimp and save until they can afford to take one class, [Pell Grants have been unavailable to incarcerated individuals since 1994, although there are currently campaigns nationwide to end or ease that restriction], they are also not served by Kirkwood...as it’s all paper and pencil. She said, “We could give Kirkwood classes if they had access to the internet, but they are not allowed any access at all, for security reasons.” Some distance learning is available through alternative schools that do offer traditional methods. Chambers said that, “About eight of the one thousand offenders here at ASP are currently seeking college degrees, including a few Masters candidates, through the mail.   

 

From left: Student inmates Nick Zook, Kane Swehla and Deion Commack discuss their educational experiences at Anamosa State Penitentiary. 
PHOTO BY Juana Jones

 

 The Challenges and Triumphs of Student Life 

 

From Chambers’ office, you can see into the classrooms. All common spaces, including classrooms and restrooms, are bordered by large windows that always allow for monitoring. Classes are structured much like a traditional high school with an average of four classes per day, Monday through Friday. Standard desks stand in neat rows between walls adorned with familiar posters outlining English, math and history best practices and instruction.   

In a study room adjacent to the classroom, under the watchful eye of administrators, students Deion Commack, Kane Swehla, and Nick Zook speak about their experience as students seeking their HiSET.   

Q: What has your experience been like and how long have you been a part of the HiSET program?  

Zook: “I’ve been here since February. It’s been pretty good. I was doing a GED program down in Mt. Pleasant before I came here, and I hadn’t passed any tests. Then I came here, and I passed two of them right away. Different teachers helped out. 

Swehla: “I’ve been at school since the beginning of the year. I’ve passed two tests and usually, I’m a pretty quick learner. The only thing I need the teachers to do is help me identify my mistakes and they do a pretty good job of that. I’ve made a lot of progress with writing, Mrs. S [the teacher] really helps you identify what you do wrong and then tells you what you need to do. She breaks it down a lot, she’s not vague in how she teaches.” 

Commack: “I’ve been a part of it for four, almost five months now. It’s actually a pretty good program... they’ve got it to a point where I’m learning a lot. It’s helping me a lot and I’m learning more than I did before. They’ve got time to work one on one with you. Being in a big classroom in a regular school they never had that actual time to just focus on you. Here they focus on you and your education, and that’s what I really like about the program.” 

Q: What’s your day-to-day like and how long do you think it will take you to get through the program?  

Swehla: “Five days a week we come to school at the times that we are scheduled to. School starts at 7:45 in the morning and usually I take four classes a day. Once you gradually get tests done you have to take less classes. It’s kind of all on you, how fast you learn and how much you apply yourself. The test lasts up to five years. You can do it in six months if you really put your mind to it.”  

Q: Once you complete this program, what are your plans for the future 

Zook: “I’ll be released within the next month and a half. If I don’t finish, I plan on going to the satellite [Kirkwood] location here in Vinton. That’s one good thing about if you don’t finish, you can take it with you. Ultimately, I would like to do some courses in welding and stuff like that.”   

Swehla: “I’ll use it to do construction because I want to be a person that works the heavy machinery and they require a GED so that they can put you through training to use that type of equipment.”  

Commack: “The main reason I wanted to get it is really for my mom. I’ve been promising this, and I really want it for myself too, but I want it so my mom can be proud of me. I really want to better my education and go to college. I’ve always wanted to be some type of counselor. I’ve learned being in here that knowledge really is power, and it gets you farther. There's no telling what the future holds for me, I do want to continue my education and go back to school and hopefully one day open my own business...get a job and live a normal life.”  

Q: What other thoughts do you have about the program and your time here at ASP 

Swehla: “I didn’t feel like it was a challenge in the beginning. They see where you are and then put you where you need to be, then they help you move forward.”   

Commack: “It’s really helpful here and I appreciate that. I feel that if I had never come here, I wouldn’t have gotten my GED. Now I’m thinking, it’s really important to have it. Even if I don’t use it, I’ll always have it. People need to hear, ‘you know what? Good job’. We are motivated and told good job. Sometimes people need to hear that they are doing good and we get that here.”  

Q: What advice do you have for Kirkwood students here and at other locations? 

Swehla: “It’s one of those things, mind over matter. You either really want it or you don’t. If you really want it, you're going to get it.”  

Zook: “You’ve just got to stay positive, even if you don’t pass your test just keep working hard to achieve your goals. You can’t give up on something if you really want it.” 

Commack: “If we can do it, you can do it. You are free and out there...out in the world. Keep your head up and focus. If we can do it while we’re in here, what excuse do you have?” 

Each student interviewed was scheduled for release within the next six months. They spoke of the most valuable lessons learned during their time at ASP, where approximately 20% of offenders are serving a life sentence. For many, their second chance will never come. Meeting so many people condemned to a life behind bars is a jarring experience, one that shows how close one can come to never leaving. This can be a powerful motivator toward making the right decisions when re-entering society.   

 

High School Beyond Bars, a Unique Perspective 

 

 As Warden Sperfslage and the students have suggested, it is the teachers at ASP that make the difference. Andy Hayward, former high school teacher and current English and math teacher, has been preparing students for the HiSET at ASP for nearly four years. The curriculum at ASP is different than that of a traditional high school, as Hayward explained, “We follow the adult common core in terms of standards and the HiSET test releases what they need to know...to prepare for the test and we use that to guide us on what to teach them. A lot of times it’s filling in gaps, we have guys with all different levels of high school. Some of them dropped out really young and some might have only missed senior year.”  

Unlike traditional teaching environments where class rosters are typically set at the beginning of the semester, students at ASP come and go without a lot of notice. Despite the challenges unique to the classroom, there are still positive examples to be found. Hayward said, “For me the real success stories are when you have those young guys that come in they’re not into it, but over the course of being here a light bulb goes off that says, ‘I’m in prison, I have a lot of time, why don’t I do something productive and get my high school diploma and do something beneficial.’ Then you see them graduate and will be walking through the yard and see them with those higher-level jobs. That’s rewarding, even if it’s not huge, it is a success.”  

The classrooms at ASP are slow to modernize, as security challenges prevent students from accessing the internet and, with very few exceptions, computers. Inmates needing word processing capabilities still use typewriters. In response to these challenges, Hayward explained what it is like. “There is never a dull moment. There is so much change always, it’s more about doing our best with what we have. One thing we’re working on is getting televisions in here to do PowerPoints on. It’s going to make it so we can do a little more...and project students work onto the screen. In one way it’s a challenge, but in another it’s exciting, and it always keeps things fresh when you're challenged to keep things going with what you have,” he said.  

Hayward has advice for all students looking to be successful inside and outside of ASP, "Keep your eye on the goal, especially the goal that’s right in front of you. What’s the next best thing that you can do to achieve your dreams and what do you want to get out of life? The next best step is that thing that’s right in front of you and it will be the thing that leads you to the next best thing that gets you closer to where you want to be,” he said.  

 

Once trained, inmates use this custom press to manufacture every license plate in the state of Iowa.
PHOTO BY Juana Jones.

 

 Opportunities Without and Within, After School 

 

For most of the residents of ASP, the next step after education is work inside the penitentiary walls. Completion of the HiSET opens the door to many rewarding and coveted work opportunities and apprenticeships. Amber Connoly, apprenticeship sponsor and counselor, shared about which pathways are available. “We’ve got approximately 20 apprenticeship programs with about 50 active people taking part in them. We’ve got all your typical maintenance from plumbing, HVAC, carpentry, painting, general maintenance, electrician, housekeeping and janitorial. We’ve also got cooking and baking, silk screening, cabinet maker, woodworking, metal fabrication and assembly, welding and powder coat painting, job printing and computer operation,” she said.   

Across the yard bustling with inmates, just before a miniature golf course designed by John Wayne Gacy, stands the row of interconnected workshops that house the best jobs and largest manufacturing centers at ASP. Within those walls, the penitentiary partners with Iowa Prison Industries (IPI), to oversee many of the on-site work opportunities while also providing essential maintenance services. In addition, IPI employs members of the inmate population to provide many contract services to public organizations throughout Iowa. License plates, street signs, furniture for schools and libraries, stationery, braille transcription services and even flowers for the governor's mansion are all produced and competitively sold from within the prison walls.   

While opportunities abound for those who are willing to compete for them, there are only enough jobs for about thirty percent of the prison population. Getting an education, earning the trust of the administration and following the rules are all critical for keeping those positions. Only one in five workers serving life sentences can work in the shops; the remaining slots are reserved for those who will take their skills, certifications and apprenticeships out into the community to contribute and make a better life.   

 

Advice From the Deputy Warden, Kirkwood Graduate 

 

Not everyone connected to Kirkwood is a teacher or student inmate at ASP. Deputy Warden Mike Heinricy graduated from Kirkwood in 1999 with an Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Arts, going on to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) to get a bachelors in Sociology. Heinricy shared his experience using the education he gained to grow his career in criminal justice and how Kirkwood prepared him for success. “Kirkwood was a good transition for me out of high school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Through my two years at Kirkwood and the college experience, it helped prepare me for UNI. I got to understand, through my advisor, the whole process of what classes I had to take and they helped prepare me for the next step. I landed here... in 2002 and have been here ever since. I worked as a correctional officer for six years, and then a counselor and unit manager before becoming deputy warden in 2016,” he said.  

Heinricy goes on to explain how he ended up working at Anamosa. “I intended to utilize my degree in some sort of criminal justice field. One of my classes that I took when I was in Kirkwood as a freshman was taught by the Warden at the time from here who was part-time faculty. That kind of got my interest peaking a little bit about the field, specifically here but it wasn’t an absolute. Warden Ault was teaching there at the time... I remember him coming and talking about this place and three years later I was here, and he was still the Warden here at the time I started in 2002. This place was the first one and I just kind of landed here and have been here ever since,” he said.   

Heinricy recommended that students take full advantage of the opportunities that Kirkwood provides, including the close guidance and care provided by counselors and faculty. If students are interested in going into corrections or healthcare, Heinricy said, “We’re always open and receptive to tours for those type of students. Whether you want to get into corrections or you’re a nurse that has an interest in the healthcare field, we do tours on a regular basis.”  

 

Onward and Upward, Lessons to Take Home 

 

Despite the storied architecture, robust availability of programs and services, dedication of staff, educators and inmates looking to make a change; the fact remains that ASP is a prison. Graduates of the HiSET average 10 per graduating class and are celebrated with bi-annual ceremonies where friends and family come to show their support. For the remaining offenders, success is slow, and time is an ever-present reminder that life outside the prison walls goes on. 

Students in the Kirkwood community struggle with family, work, coming into their own and managing the workload of college. As the warden, staff and students at ASP have explained, finishing a degree, certificate or high school equivalency is challenging, but immensely satisfying, not only on a personal level but a professional one as well. If challenges seem overwhelming, remember the words of Deion Commack when he says, “If we can do it, so can you.”    

  

  

  

  

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

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