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.

The Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center isn't the only prison in Missouri with plenty of room. The state also has had trouble coming up with money to open a $72 million prison in Charleston that was completed last summer. That lockup, which will cost $18 million a year to operate, accepted its first prisoners last fall. With room for 1,600 inmates, it houses fewer than 600. The governor, who has allocated $13.3 million for the Charleston prison this year, plans to open it gradually. Despite empty cellblocks in Charleston and Bonne Terre, the state has broken ground on yet another prison in the state capital. The new penitentiary, which is scheduled for completion next year, won't increase the number of state prison beds. Rather, the $136 million facility will replace the Central Missouri Correctional Center, a crumbling 19th-century relic in Jefferson City.

The 2,000-bed pen under construction in Jeff City irks Wilke and Staples. Why is the state building another prison when it can't afford to open the one in Bonne Terre? Why doesn't the state close the old Jeff City pen and just transfer inmates to the new, completed prison? Sen. Staples blames pork politics: "When I've got a prison in my district and other people have a prison in their district, they don't want to close that prison because of the economic conditions it would create in Cole County."

At first, Jim Purkett needed a map to find his way around the sprawling Bonne Terre prison.
Jennifer Silverberg
At first, Jim Purkett needed a map to find his way around the sprawling Bonne Terre prison.
Bonne Terre Mayor Sue Wilke says the prison would work as a movie set: "I've thought about calling Bruce Willis."
Jennifer Silverberg
Bonne Terre Mayor Sue Wilke says the prison would work as a movie set: "I've thought about calling Bruce Willis."

Corrections officials say it's a matter of efficiency and a never-ending stream of inmates. It makes little sense to transfer inmates from Jeff City to Bonne Terre for just one year. Seasoned staff would be lost, and Jeff City prison factories that produce furniture, floor wax and other goods would be disrupted because Bonne Terre isn't designed to accommodate that work. They dismiss any notion that the state could close Jeff City and not replace the aging pen.

For them, prison construction in Missouri is an automatic case of "if you build it, they will come." By 2004, corrections officials predict, the state will run out of cells.

Not everybody believes it.

Take Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist. Rosenfeld is convinced the state has gone overboard. "Absolutely," he says. "Barring policy changes that I just don't see on the horizon, what will happen in Missouri is what we're beginning to see in many other places, and that is smaller and smaller growth rates and then, finally, a flattening. I would think that by 2004 they'll be flat."

During the second half of 2000, the number of inmates confined in state prisons nationwide dropped by half a percentage point, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was the first decline in the prison population since 1972. In Missouri, the numbers are rising, but not nearly so fast as in the early and mid-1990s, when annual percentage increases reached double digits. Prison growth peaked in 1995, when the number of inmates increased by 15 percent in one year. Since 1997, annual growth has been less than 5 percent. The numbers work out to 3.3 new inmates per day over the past three years. When work started on Bonne Terre, the state was welcoming eight new inmates per day.

An end may be in sight. With crime rates falling since the early 1990s, inmates sent to prison for parole or probation violations are fueling the growth -- in 2000, 59 percent of all prison admissions were the result of parole or probation revocations. In most cases, parole or probation is revoked for technical violations, such as failing a drug test, as opposed to new crimes. Inevitably, Rosenfeld says, the numbers of probation and parole violators will decrease as sentences run their courses. Banking on repeat offenders to fill new prisons isn't a wise bet in Missouri, which, at 19.2 percent, has the sixth-lowest recidivism rate in the nation.

Corrections officials have been wrong before. In 1997, the state predicted it would house 33,000 inmates by 2001. Forecasters were wrong by 5,000 inmates -- the population today is slightly less than 30,000. The state each year appropriates tens of millions of dollars for corrections that is never spent. In fiscal year 2001, which ended on June 30, the state spent $455 million on corrections, $45 million less than what was approved by the Legislature and governor. The same was true 10 years earlier, when the state spent $182.7 million, nearly $20 million below the appropriated amount. Although departments, especially large ones, typically don't spend their entire appropriations, corrections presents unique challenges to state budgeters. "We had a lot of uncertainty then about what was happening with the population," says Katherine Connor, section manager for the state Office of Administration. "We had had such huge increases for a while. About the time we thought we had it under control and knew what we were doing, we'd hit another spike. Our crystal ball wasn't very good."

Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest blames high employee turnover for much of the unspent money. The state hasn't been able to quickly fill openings, and so money budgeted for payroll hasn't been spent, he says. Despite the understaffing, the state's prisons seem to be getting along just fine, even with Bonne Terre empty and more than 1,000 vacant beds at Charleston. On a per capita basis, assaults on staff have gone down during the past few years. Inmates are relatively satisfied with their living conditions -- Missouri had the fourth-lowest number of prisoner lawsuits filed in the nation in 2000 on a per capita basis. Just two of the state's prisons are operating under federal consent decrees capping inmate numbers; six institutions had such caps when the building boom began. Corrections officials say they haven't had difficulty complying with existing caps. "I don't think we've had any court orders about population in a number of years," Kniest says.

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