‘Unsung heroes’ keep 225th largest city running

A nod of appreciation to often-overlooked employees was made by Jim McKinney when the Iowa Board of Corrections met Friday morning at the Fort Dodge Residential Corrections Facility.

McKinney, warden of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, referred to the local prison employees as unsung heroes due to the necessary roles they fill.

“A lot of the time when you think about prisons, you think of correctional officers and counselors,” he said, “but we are much bigger than that.”

The Fort Dodge facility houses 1,312 offenders, he said.

Providing for that many men takes a small army.


An essential component among the ranks of that army is the recycling, clothing, laundry and housekeeping department. In addition to overseeing the inmates who sort tons of recyclables, Supervisor Ben Birchard said he and the staff also ensure the 175,000 rolls of toilet paper used each year get properly distributed. They also wash and dry 6,000 pounds of laundry a day and ensure the offenders get the 11,000 pairs of shoes and 17,000 pairs of socks a year that the population goes through.


Connecting the inmates with the world beyond the walls is the mailroom which processes 1,000 pieces of mail per day, five days a week, according to Sherry Herrick, mail clerk. The items includes correspondence, packages, newspapers and magazines. They also log, mark and deliver an average of 50 books a week for inmates. Except for legal mail, the staff must open each piece and sort through it by hand for contraband, such as weapons, drugs, graphic photos, body fluids and other random or illicit items.

“I’m hoping to write a book about what I’ve seen in the mailroom,” Herrick said.

She said she has already compiled some of the more interesting anecdotes into a file she calls “cell block classics.”

Vocation and education

Providing for improved skill sets for when inmates are released falls, in part, to Abby Underburg, the prison’s education director. The instructors in her department help the men study for high school equivalency tests and get them enrolled in vocational trades programs that can result in certificates acknowledged by employers and colleges. She reported that her department had 120 GED graduates last year and 135 graduates of the vocational and life skills programs.

Health center

Any aches and pains, cuts and injuries, or concerns related to chronic health conditions are tended to by the staff in the health center, which includes 12 registered nurses, a dentist, a pharmacy assistant, a nurse practitioner, an optometrist, three psychologists and two psychiatrists. According to Karen Anderson, nurse supervisor, nurses average 1,100 visits with inmates per day.

“It is a busy place,” said Michelle Engelbrecht, RN. “We do some inmate teaching too. If they have high blood pressure or are diabetic, we encourage them to stay away from the salt and limit the sugar.”

Food services

Feeding and ensuring balanced nutrition for the offenders falls to Brent Mitchell, food services director. He and his staff prepare 4,500 meals a day, which equates to 1.5 million meals a year.

The challenge of this position is not just in menus, but also in logistics, he said. Those meals need to be delivered in a manner that ensures hot dishes are hot and cold dishes stay cold. Also, the heart healthy meals require sizable amounts of commodities that must be properly inventoried and stored. For example, the prison uses 450 pounds of flour a day, as well as 250 gallons of milk a day, and 1,000 pounds of ground turkey and lean ground beef mixture a week.


Dru Sathoff, associate warden of administration, oversees the accounting clerks who balance the offenders’ accounts, tracking the money they earn and what they spend.

The department processed $1.16 million in transactions last year and, of that, $483,000 was put on debit cards used by the offenders to purchase vending items such as soda, she said. Because Fort Dodge is the key depository for all nine state institutions, the clerks processed $4.8 million in funds sent to offenders from outside sources, such as family and friends.


Ensuring all of the equipment and structures housing the offenders and staff is serviced and repaired properly is the maintenance staff, which includes seven correctional trades leaders, an electrician, electronic technicians and power plant engineers.

According to Don Halligan, plant operations manager, the department has completed 100,000 work orders since the prison opened in 1998. The jobs range from simple tasks such as mounting pencil sharpeners to fabricating tables, lockers and security cages for the living units.

Additionally, the maintenance staff act as mentors and teachers for the offenders who train in trades such as carpentry, welding, appliance repair, plumbing, painting and general maintenance.

“It’s amazing,” said Kim Schultz, a trade leader who oversees inmates in the carpentry shop. “The work and projects just go on and on.”

The amount of work that happens behind the walls of the prison is not so surprising considering that the population housed within is larger than 76 percent of the communities in the state, Halligan said.

“We are the 225th largest city in Iowa,” McKinney added, “and as such there is a lot of work to be done. These people are indeed unsung heroes because without them we couldn’t operate.”