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.

Purkett knows this place as well as he knows his own house. Dozens of bare rooms contained in 20 buildings soon start to look the same, but Purkett can tell you which ones will be barbershops, which will be counselors' offices and which will be classrooms. He no longer has to look for the brand-new water tower just outside the perimeter to find his bearings. Purkett visited frequently during construction but still had trouble finding his way around when it was finished. "It took a while," he says. "I had to have a map."

A 27-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Corrections, Purkett hopes to retire as superintendent of this place. It's a far cry from the Jefferson City penitentiary where he started his career as a parole officer. With 75 acres inside the perimeter fence and more than twice that surrounding the new prison, there's lots of space. The death fence and electronic surveillance systems are more sophisticated than gun-toting guards in towers. "I think, psychologically, it's more relaxed," Purkett says. "This is the way we build them these days. It's done with technology instead of brick and mortar. We keep growing. It's nice to have new places like this."

Ten years ago, Purkett's biggest challenge was finding beds for inmates. That's changed. The state plans to transfer 50 minimum-security prisoners from Farmington to Bonne Terre in May to help get the prison ready for occupancy but won't fill the beds they leave. "We're a little under capacity," explains Purkett, who is also superintendent at the state prison in Farmington. "We're just going to leave them empty." Purkett has also seen a change in clientele during his career. "I'd say they've probably changed," he says. "They're not so violent. Maybe we're doing our job better. I think we're better at preventing violence."

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.

Or maybe Missouri is spending too much money on prisons that aren't really needed.

More than half the inmates confined in state prisons aren't guilty of violent offenses. Other states with more crowded penitentiaries are closing prisons. Legislators elsewhere are considering retreat from three-strikes laws, long sentences for drug offenders and mandatory minimum sentences that have driven up costs. Voters in Arizona and California have approved initiatives that require treatment instead of prison for drug users. Yet Missouri continues on.

The seeds of the Bonne Terre fiasco were sown in the early 1990s, when Missouri embarked on its mammoth prison-expansion program. Bonne Terre is the crown jewel, the largest facility in the state.

Since 1994, the state has built eight new prisons, adding 13,000 beds to the system. Missouri's inmate population nearly doubled during the 1990s, and the dollars spent to house criminals have mushroomed at an even faster rate, thanks to new construction. In 1990, the state spent less than $200 million a year on corrections; Holden wants to spend $571 million in fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1. Corrections also is taking a larger bite of total state spending -- up from 4.32 percent of the general fund in fiscal year 1991 to 5.57 percent in fiscal year 2001.

Eight years ago, when Holden's predecessor launched the spending spree, few questioned the need for more prison beds. State prisons were at 160 percent of capacity, and the state's new truth-in-sentencing law requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences promised to exacerbate the problem. Initial experience proved the predictions true. The state couldn't build prisons fast enough. By 1995, the corrections department was housing hundreds of inmates in tents. Hundreds more were sent to private prisons in Texas, a policy that proved disastrous in 1997, when a videotape surfaced showing guards brutalizing Missouri prisoners with attack dogs and electric prods. The tape prompted Missouri to immediately bring its inmates home, where their sheer numbers have made them a headache ever since. That same year, the state broke ground at Bonne Terre, and Carnahan successfully lobbied the Legislature for $146 million to build prisons at Charleston and Licking.

The governor said he hated to do it but that surging numbers of inmates left him no choice. "It's critical," Chris Sifford (a spokesman for the governor who died in a plane crash with his boss), told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the 1997 legislative session, when some legislators pondered approving money for one new prison instead of the two requested by Carnahan. "We have to do it." Dora Schriro, then corrections director, warned in making the case for Carnahan's request. The state, she noted, was gaining eight new inmates per day -- the inmate population that year increased by more than 9 percent, according to the Justice Department. "We have no idea that the rate is going to abate," Schriro told the newspaper.

The rate plummeted long before Bonne Terre was ready for occupancy. In 1998, the annual prison population increase stood at 4.1 percent, and it's been below 5 percent every year since. Still, that's a phenomenal number of prisoners.

Missouri has the highest incarceration rate in the Midwest, according to the Justice Department. In 2000, Missouri had 494 inmates for every 100,000 residents. The Midwest average is 371 inmates per 100,000 residents; the national average is 432. Outside the South, Missouri has the nation's third-highest incarceration rate. Even as Missouri's inmate numbers continue rising, the rest of the country is starting to move in the other direction.

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