IOWA CITY, Iowa — A convicted armed robber managed to escape from one of Iowa's most highly secure prison cells by sneaking through the building's piping onto the roof and guiding himself to the ground with a makeshift rope, authorities said Monday.
Justin Kestner, 25, escaped early Sunday from a cell in the A-Pod unit at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, which houses some of the state's most difficult inmates.
"This is an individual that I think was pretty ingenious in what he came up with," Gov. Terry Branstad said.
Kestner was captured several hours later, about 100 miles away, near Geneseo, Illinois. He is suspected of stealing a car in Wever, Iowa, just miles from the prison, and abandoning it near Geneseo, prompting a resident to call authorities. An Illinois trooper found Kestner walking a mile from the vehicle on the side of Highway 82, near Interstate 80. Kestner fled into a cornfield but surrendered without incident after the trooper called for him.
The A-Pod is a unit where inmates are typically confined to locked cells 23 hours per day and are searched, handcuffed and escorted whenever they leave. The unit is for maximum-security inmates with housing restrictions such as Kestner, who had been sentenced by a prison judge last month to one year of detention for assaulting a correctional officer and other rules violations.
Kestner took advantage of the fact that cells in the unit have their own showers — a security feature designed to cut down on offenders' interactions with guards and other inmates.
In his cell shower, Kestner removed the screws from an access cover that led to a pipe chase — an enclosed space that houses the prison's pipes, authorities said. Kestner managed to maneuver himself up the chase and through a vent to the roof — crawling "through a very narrow area that's supposed to be too small for someone to crawl through," Branstad said.
The governor said Kestner's makeshift rope was manufactured by tying together some 67 feet of bedsheets. He then guided himself down to an unfenced part of the prison grounds and fled.
Investigators don't think Kestner had any help from staff, penitentiary spokeswoman Rebecca Bowker said.
Lawmakers said the escape raised security questions at the prison along the Mississippi River, which has a storied history dating back to 1839. Most of the prison is expected to close later this year as roughly 500 inmates get transferred a mile away to the new penitentiary — a huge undertaking that will involve local, state and federal officers.
"This close to a transfer, we cannot be having escaped convicts. That's just unacceptable," said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Wilton Republican who led an investigation into construction problems at the new $166 million prison that was initially scheduled to open last year.
He worries that Kestner's prison break — and last month's escape of two convicted killers from a New York prison — "will potentially embolden other inmates to raise trouble when the time comes to move."
Kestner was serving a 20-year sentence he received in 2009 for robbing two gas stations in Sioux City, with a projected release date of 2019 before the escape. He was returned to the prison Sunday evening and is expected to face escape-related charges.
On June 25, a prison judge gave Kestner a term of disciplinary detention of one year and took away one year of earned time for assaulting the officer during a transport — the maximum penalty for "serious or dangerous violence" under prison policy.
Kestner's cell was in a newer building at the prison complex, which was completed in 2001 and originally designed to house mentally ill offenders. Last year, the prison transferred most of those inmates elsewhere and converted part of the building to a minimum-security prison. But the building kept the highly secure A-Pod unit.
"I'm flabbergasted that anyone could have gotten out of there," said former building administrator Heather Brueck.