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.

Missouri's prisons aren't crowded compared with those in other states. The federal government reports that 96 percent of the state's prison beds were occupied in 2000, and that doesn't include Bonne Terre or Charleston. In contrast, 21 states reported prison populations in excess of 100 percent of capacity. Illinois is operating at more than 130 percent of capacity but nevertheless plans to close at least one prison to save money. Ohio and Michigan are also closing prisons, even though their prisons are more crowded than Missouri penitentiaries, according to federal statistics. In California, which houses nearly twice as many inmates as prisons were designed to hold, five private lockups are due to be shut down because the state, thanks to a decline in inmates, no longer needs the space.

Prison administrators have lowered crowding statistics by converting dayrooms, gyms and other areas into housing units. Missouri prison officials say they have 1,768 empty beds, not counting Bonne Terre -- the bulk of the empty space is at Charleston. The state figures its prisons are running at 125 percent of design capacity. When the building spree began, prisons were operating at more than 160 percent of capacity. "If you look at operational capacity, we have more beds than inmates," Kniest acknowledges, "but you have to look at the other side of that. The situation is, how crowded is crowded? If your institution is overpopulated and you have to take other areas to make housing units, that reduces your program space."

Legislators who approve money for new prisons and the bureaucrats who run them are betting that Missouri will buck the national trend and fill Bonne Terre -- and then some. Just last year, corrections officials in their annual budget request said a new $97 million medium-security prison will be needed by 2005. Staples doesn't see an end to the crescendoing numbers. The reasoning is nothing short of depressing.

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.

"I've been here long enough to know that when the economy goes sour and people aren't working, the crime rate goes up," he says. "By the time we get it [Bonne Terre] fully funded and get it open, it's going to be full. That's going to be 831 employees for St. Francois County and Jefferson and surrounding counties. It's going to be a boon for the economy in Bonne Terre." But counting on a prolonged recession to fill a prison is a double-edged sword. If Staples is right, the state will be saddled with thousands of new inmates when it can least afford to house them.

Built on solid rock, the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center will be both the beginning and end of the line for some of the state's most dangerous convicts, the place where all new inmates from eastern Missouri will go for assessment and the place where those deemed the highest security threat may be permanently assigned.

"There's no way you can tunnel out of here without heavy machinery," says Jim Purkett, acting superintendent. "It took several million dollars just for excavation work." For now, the perimeter death fence, high-voltage and designed to kill instantly, is turned off. Inside, beeps subtler than a cell phone but no less annoying permeate housing units, the dining hall, classrooms and infirmary that will one day be filled with the state's highest-risk inmates. "It's the fire alarm," Purkett explains. "It drives you crazy after a while."

With no flammables or inmates inside the concrete and steel, there's no rush to fix the alarm. The camera system works, however, and correctional officers in the central control room watch and sometimes open a door by remote control when a sergeant can't figure out a lock.

Cigarette butts litter the kitchen floor. Floors, walls and doors everywhere are either white or gray. Demands for bread-and-water-only dungeons from political conservatives a decade ago have dimmed as Missouri has perfected the art of prison- building. The chapel smells of fresh carpet, and plastic dust covers are draped over the infirmary's x-ray equipment and three dental chairs. Several of the infirmary rooms are specially sealed with separate ventilation systems to accommodate tuberculosis cases, and two are fully padded and equipped with special observation cameras. There are 14 private sickrooms here, plus two wards, reflecting the need to segregate inmates who are either dangerous or vulnerable. Infirmary rooms are equipped with cable-television outlets, as are cells in the housing units. There is space for weightlifting machines in the gymnasium.

The prison school includes 10 classrooms, plus a teachers' lounge. Inmates, who aren't eligible for parole unless they have a high-school diploma or G.E.D., will typically work three hours a day and spend another three hours in classes. The gym is suitable for a concert -- with sound-muffling material on its ceiling, it's far less echoey than the two-tiered housing units, where bare concrete and metal roofs amplify the tiniest sound, especially with nothing inside to absorb noise. Purkett ticks off the list of furnishing and supplies he needs: Bunks, lockers, mattresses, blankets, sheets, clothing, shoes, boots, chairs, bookcases, credenzas, cleaning supplies, wax -- all will be made by inmates at other institutions.

Just outside the fence stands a food-preparation unit that will supply 30,000 meals a day to five prisons in western Missouri. It's substantially larger than a football field -- one walk-in cooler alone has more than enough space for a full-court basketball game. There are three stainless-steel pots with room for 900 gallons of chili, gravy or spaghetti sauce that, once cooked, will be pumped through hoses into converted commercial-size laundry washers that will chill it in a matter of minutes so it can go into a cooler. This is the same gear used to supply all-you-can-eat buffets in Las Vegas casinos, says Purkett, who knows how it all functions, down to the smallest detail. "I just needed to know," he says. "I had no clue how it worked. It baffled my mind to think about it, so I found out."

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