Empty Promises

Missouri has been pouring millions into prisons that aren't being used. But stay tuned: If politicians have their way, there will be plenty of inmates to go around.

Locals say the lights always burn at Missouri's largest prison, a sprawling 210-acre complex on the outskirts of Bonne Terre. Scores of orange bulbs, mounted on tall poles, fire up the winter sky and can be seen for miles.

With enough power to turn night into day, the lights make the new Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center as obvious a landmark as the towering 32-acre mound of lead-mine tailings left behind by the St. Joe lead company. The 2 million-ton dirt heap and a huge underground cavity are the old lead company's legacy to Bonne Terre. Today the abandoned mine, dubbed Billion Gallon Lake, is the world's largest freshwater diving resort, attracting notice from scuba magazines and National Geographic.

Resort or no, Bonne Terre is far from a vacation playland. The town can't afford a new pump for an artificial lake that went dry this winter -- nature lovers had to stare at a muddy hole for weeks until rain filled it. The public schools are the biggest employer. There's a cluster of fast-food restaurants, gas stations and video stores at the highway interchange, but several downtown storefronts are boarded up. Bonne Terre officials thought they'd found the solution to the town's money problems when the state decided to build a $168 million penitentiary that would bring more than 800 jobs. Then there'd be plenty of money for paving potholes and sprucing up the park, they figured.

Jennifer Silverberg
There's plenty of room in Bonne Terre for Missouri's most dangerous criminals.
Jennifer Silverberg
There's plenty of room in Bonne Terre for Missouri's most dangerous criminals.

They figured wrong.

Six months after construction was completed, the prison in Bonne Terre sits empty, a sobering lesson on the fiscal consequences of prison construction that has cost Missouri taxpayers nearly a half-billion dollars since 1994. During the past dozen years, the state's corrections budget has more than doubled, benefiting concrete-pouring contractors and politicians such as the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, who led the push for new prisons while billing himself as a crime-fighter. With the prison-building spree near an end, the state now says it doesn't have enough money to open the Bonne Terre lockup, designed to house the state's most dangerous inmates.

Bonne Terre Mayor Sue Wilke walks right up to the fence. With the prison empty, security is the least of the state's concerns. Air ducts snake through the site, part of an HVAC system that will one day keep inmates comfortable, if not happy -- the gleaming metal pipes, built above ground for easy maintenance, are among the more striking features of the prison viewed from outside. Wilke chats for five minutes or so before a guard buzzes over in an electric cart and politely asks her to back off. He disappears before she finishes walking back to her car.

"I've thought about calling Bruce Willis," Wilke cracks. "This would make a great movie set." All these lights on in the middle of the day is also good from the mayor's standpoint -- at least the town will collect some utility taxes. As far as she's concerned, the state's money woes are minuscule compared with the financial crisis in her town.

Bonne Terre spent heavily to land the 2,700-bed prison. Besides buying the site and deeding it to the state, the town borrowed to extend sewer, water and electricity to the prison. It seemed like a can't-lose deal. Revenue from state gas taxes alone, which is distributed on the basis of population, would swell local coffers by $90,000 a year because the town would include inmates in census counts. But there has been no economic bonanza. With 3,800 residents and an annual budget of about $1.5 million, the town has frozen hiring and increased water and sewer rates by 18 percent to make ends meet. A sales-tax hike is on the ballot to pay for road repairs. "I've never seen a small town with so much debt," says city manager Larry Hughes.

It's little wonder that Gov. Bob Holden's vow to open the prison won the most tepid of applause during his "State of the State" speech to lawmakers in January. The law-and-order Legislature of the 1990s is now facing bills that won't go away anytime soon. Too timid to risk being tagged as soft on crime, legislators have balked at doing anything about an escalating prison population swelled by nonviolent criminals who are a bigger drain on the state's pocketbook than a risk to law-abiding citizens on the streets.

Even before the economy worsened, the state couldn't come up with the cash to bring convicts to Bonne Terre. State Sen. Danny Staples (D-Eminence) says corrections officials told him during last year's session that the prison wouldn't open on schedule. The lease alone on the empty facility is costing taxpayers $8.4 million a year. Equipping the penitentiary with furniture, office equipment, firearms and other tools of the prison trade will cost nearly $14 million. Then taxpayers will spend $45 million a year running the place. At the earliest, cellblocks will open some time next year, if the Legislature approves Holden's proposed budget that contains $30 million in operating money for the prison, enough to support three-quarters of the inmates it was designed to hold.

"When we started construction, Missouri was blessed with revenue," says Staples, whose district includes Bonne Terre. "We were sending rebate checks back to taxpayers. We just had so much money we didn't know what to do with it. All of a sudden, hard times hit."

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