Taking No Prisoners

Missouri maintains a spotless record at Bonne Terre facility

Dec 26, 2001 at 4:00 am
It may surprise you to know it, but the state of Missouri boasts the safest maximum-security prison in America, just 60 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Not one inmate has escaped from the 210-acre Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, which was completed last summer at a cost of $105 million and is guarded by more than 130 video cameras. Not one inmate has been injured or gotten into a fight at this facility designed to hold 2,684 of the nastiest characters around.

Not one inmate has felt the need to sue the state over prison conditions at Bonne Terre. Indeed, not one inmate has complained about the place.

Admittedly, not one inmate has stayed at Bonne Terre, either. But at least it's no Attica.

It seems that a funny thing happened on the way to rolling out the spanking-new jewel at Bonne Terre: Missouri can't find the money to open it.

Six years after its construction was announced by the state as part of the dubious national prison-building spree -- you remember the three-strikes-you're-out glory days, don't you? -- the Bonne Terre project limped to conclusion well behind schedule. It had been slowed by one lawsuit between contractors and another by a handful of angry residents, and by the time it was ready to be opened, money was tight and the state had to choose between it and another (smaller) new prison at Charleston.

"We just didn't have the money to do both last year," says Tim Kniest, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. "We decided to open Charleston instead."

So there sits Bonne Terre, in all its correctional glory, a freaking city of a prison -- as in 50 city blocks large -- with a big enough kitchen to cook 30,000 meals a day and not enough of a population to empty a vending machine. The place has air conditioners capable of cooling the equivalent of 500 homes, but, unfortunately, all the hot air is in the Capitol, in Jefferson City.

Missouri is paying for the finished prison, mind you, to the tune of lease payments totaling $168 million over the next 20 years. The state's prison system is paying for its inaction as well, seeing as how its 28,641 inmates are housed in 20 other institutions designed for roughly three-fourths that number.

Finally, the shaky little city of Bonne Terre (population 4,000) is really paying, having no new revenue to cover the $14 million in capital improvements and infrastructure expenses it incurred in gleeful anticipation of the facility and the 800-plus jobs (and thousands of visits to prisoners) it was expected to bring. The town is struggling to make ends meet in light of its unexpected shortfalls.

"I truly do not know how Bonne Terre will survive," Mayor Sue Wilke tells me.

In the last legislative session -- long before Sept. 11, by the way -- Gov. Bob Holden and the Legislature couldn't muster a dime to open the prison because of budget tightness. It's not as if this were a new stadium, after all.

"We've been unable to open Bonne Terre because of the high cost of doing so," says Brian Long, state budget director. "It's about a $39 million proposition to bring it into operation, and the revenues simply haven't been there."

Just a moment, please. Did the state government truly decide to spend $168 million on a monster prison without considering the small detail that it would take funds to open and operate once finished? Say it ain't so.

"Of course, the costs have been known for a long time, but we didn't know we'd have a revenue crisis like this," Long says. "Also, the growth rate in the prison population has gone down, so we don't have as many prisoners as we anticipated."

Long says opening the Bonne Terre facility is on the state's radar for fiscal year 2003, the budget Holden will be proposing to the Legislature next month.

"The governor said it's one of the things he wants us to try to do," Long says. "We're going to try to open Bonne Terre."

But asked for a prediction on that happening, Long will only say, "I'm not going to try to handicap it."

In the meantime, the "big" Bonne Terre news is that state Sen. Danny Staples (D-Eminence), a tireless advocate for the prison, has announced that the facility will get 100 employees and an undetermined number of boot-camp inmates beginning next May.

Now, what about that remaining 98 percent or so of the prison's remaining capacity? Could it be that Missouri just doesn't have enough prisoners to go around?

Not exactly.

"There's still an overpopulation problem in the facilities," Kniest acknowledges. "Of the 20 institutions, there are at least 15 which have more in the prison than they were designed to accommodate."

Last year, Missouri ranked 48th in the nation in spending per prisoner, Kniest says, which is one of the main reasons for the overcrowded conditions. The situation doesn't appear to be getting better, according to a population forecast the corrections department published.

"If the inmate population continues to grow at its current net gain of 3.65 inmates per day, the department will run out of bed space in June 2004," it predicts. "This will happen even with the addition of the prison in Bonne Terre and the replacement of the old Jefferson City Correctional Center, currently under construction."

That hardly jibes with Long's observation that prison growth has slowed, but in a larger sense that argument doesn't matter anymore. Neither does an even larger point, which is that Missouri and other states should be looking for alternatives to incarceration rather than building prisons they can't afford.

You see, the prison at Bonne Terre is built. Finished. Done. It exists. It may have been the stupidest project of all time, but it's a little late to worry about that.

Isn't it?

"I just think the state needs to look at the fiscal responsibility of making a commitment to build a facility and then having it just sit there empty," Wilke says. "It also ought to look at the responsibility of making a commitment to our town and then leaving us holding the bag. It's scary, and it's just not right."

That, like the Bonne Terre prison itself, is inescapable.