Hager advocating for lease of Luster Heights as faith-based, nonprofit, transitional living center

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Six months after budget cuts forced the closure of Luster Heights Correctional Facility, located outside Harpers Ferry, District 56 State Rep. Kristi Hager is hoping to put the dormant facility to use.

Hager, as part of “Citizens for Luster Heights,” has authored a petition asking the state of Iowa to lease the facility for use as a faith-based, nonprofit, transitional living center for individuals coming out of jail/prison or struggling with homelessness or substance abuse issues.

“I am one who believes, when one door closes, another opens,” Hager noted in the petition narrative. 

Operations at the facility—and four others in the state—were suspended on Feb. 8, in order to cut the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) fiscal year 2017 budget by $5.5 million, said DOC Director Jerry Bartruff. Hager and District 28 State Senator Michael Breitbach said the DOC was impacted by the legislature’s de-appropriation bill to reduce spending in that fiscal year.

Luster Heights had 69 inmates in residence at the time of the closure. They all had jobs at the facility, either cooking, cleaning, cutting wood, tending the gardens or performing other maintenance tasks. Many learned woodworking skills.

Some also had jobs outside the facility, working for the Iowa DNR in Yellow River State Forest, or in area communities, like Marquette and McGregor.

The cities of Marquette and McGregor, as well as many local residents, opposed the closure. Individuals met with legislators and contacted other government and public officials, advocating for Luster Heights’ re-opening.

While individuals advocated for Luster Heights in part because of how the closure affects the cities, they also did so for the inmates, who they said became part of the communities and learned skills that would prepare them for the workforce and life after release.

Hager said she discussed keeping the facility open with then-governor Terry Branstad and the Department of Corrections, but was left discouraged.

“This led to a season of vision casting with the directors from Department of Corrections, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Human Services in Des Moines,” she detailed. “We pulled together a vision casting meeting at Veterans Memorial Hospital with administration, health care providers, law enforcement, mental health workers and community members.”

Around April, Hager said hospital administration, county supervisors, mental health representatives and community members joined her on several tours of Luster Heights.

“We left feeling affirmed there was a need for a transitional living program,” she said.

Hager and her husband, Bob, previously operated a similar facility, called Living Stone, near Waukon, from 2009 to 2012. IRS information shows Living Stone remains an active corporation, with Hager as the registered agent and president, vice president and treasurer. Her husband is listed as a director.

No information has been provided yet in regard to the nonprofit that would operate the proposed facility. 

Hager is advocating for a five-year lease of Luster Heights’ main facility, wood shop, greenhouse and grounds.

“This portion would be financially supported by donations, fundraising, resident program fees and the three industries we see suitable for job skill training for residents,” she said.

In the future, she’s hopeful the recreational/offices building could become a six- to eight- bed 24/48-hour crisis intervention center supported with tax dollars.

The petition, which was published on July 31, currently has 41 signatures. It can be found on the website gopetition.com.

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