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Officials: Prison merger to improve pay, safety

Officials: Prison merger to improve pay, safety

January 19th, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Missouri News

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe talks to reporters during press conference Friday with Gov. Mike Parson, background, to explain the plan to consolidate Crossroads Correctional and Western Missouri Correctional centers in Cameron.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

A consolidation of two prisons in Cameron will help Missouri provide pay raises for Department of Corrections personnel across the state under a plan offered by Gov. Mike Parson's office.

Senior employees will receive the greatest pay raises.

During his State of the State address Wednesday, Parson announced his budget plan includes 3 percent pay raises for all state employees beginning Jan. 1, 2020. It also set aside revenue for salary adjustments for DOC personnel. During a Friday morning news conference, Parson and DOC Director Anne Precythe released more details about the plan.

Parson said Wednesday he would place Crossroads Correctional Facility in mothballs, moving its 960 maximum-security prisoners to nearby Western Missouri Correctional Facility, which is a medium-security prison. Half of Western is to be converted to maximum security at a cost of $3 million. The money for the change has already been set aside, Precythe said.

The consolidation of the two prisons will save money and improve safety at all state prisons, in part by increasing pay to DOC employees, they said.

"Because of the consolidation, the department is able to have an additional 1 percent increase for every two years of continuous service with the department," Precythe said. "We've got to reward our seasoned, loyal, dedicated staff. I've got to have experience in the facilities who are helping train new employees because we have so many vacancies in our correctional officer ranks and our lower level, entry points."

 

By the numbers

The offender population in Missouri's prisons was on a steady climb for about five years, before hitting a peak in September 2017. At that time, the population was 33,243, according to Karen Pojmann, DOC communications director.

For the past 15 months, there's been a significant decline. The population is down more than 9 percent over that time.

The population as of Tuesday was 30,196.

The population at the end of fiscal year 2018 was 31,679; 2017 was 32,785; 2016 was 32,837; 2015 was 32,273; 2014 was 31,905; and 2013 was 31,435.

The capacity of Jefferson City Correctional Center — a maximum-security facility that opened in 2004 — is 1,996 prisoners.

As of Tuesday, its offender population was 1,937.

The capacity of Algoa Correctional Center — a minimum-security facility that opened in 1932 — is 1,635. Its population on Tuesday was 1,419.

The capacity of Tipton Correctional Center — a minimum-security prison that opened in 1913 — is 1,222 offenders. It contained 1,132 inmates Tuesday.

Not having enough corrections personnel to fully staff prisons is a safety concern for the entire state, Parson said. Increasing staff pay will help improve safety because Missouri will be able to recruit and retain qualified personnel, he added. And allowing staff to transfer to other facilities will fill gaps there.

"There are two things that we've been adamant about since the beginning — the security of the people who work in those facilities and the safety of everyone who works in those facilities," Parson said.

The challenge filling positions comes about in part because Missouri DOC employees have been among the lowest-paid in the nation for years, officials say. Overall, the state's employees are the lowest paid in the nation.

The DOC would not provide data concerning specific staffing shortages in individual facilities, citing safety concerns, but it did provide overall state data.

Missouri has 4,773 Corrections Officer I (entry-level) positions. As of Jan. 5, the state had 768 vacancies (about 16 percent) in that position. Those vacancies peaked in September 2018, when there were 848 (about 18 percent).

Along with corrections officers, we are in serious need of cooks throughout the state," Pojmann said in an email. "We also need office support assistants, probation and parole assistants, truck drivers and teachers."

The governor's proposal represents the largest pay increase in the history of the DOC, Precythe said.

"It's possible because of the reduction in the inmate population that we've experienced in the recent months," she added. "This reduction is going to allow us to blend, to merge, to consolidate two prisons that are closely located in the Cameron area."

Parson assured listeners the consolidation of the Cameron facilities was to be the only consolidation of prisons under the plan.

Staff at Crossroads — which opened in 1997 and has a capacity of 1,440 inmates — have supported the plan to close the facility, Precythe said. As have staff at Western — which was opened in 1988 and has a capacity of 1,925. Crossroads housed 960 inmates (about 67 percent of capacity) on Tuesday. Western housed 1,257 (about 65 percent of capacity).

"One of the responses we heard from our administrators is that — in all honesty — staff are relieved," Precythe said. "Relieved that they're going to be in a safe environment when this merger is completed, that it will be a fully staffed facility, that there will be a full complement of offenders in there."

The consolidation of the prisons will allow for more offender programming, she said.

A lack of programming was a major cause of violent rioting that took place in Crossroads in May. It began when inmates staged a sit-in over grievances, including complaints that programs had closed. When ordered to return to their cells, some did, but scores of others went on a rampage that damaged prison buildings.

The riot caused a lockdown that continued for more than four months.

Precythe said on Friday that the state paid $1.3 million to repair damage done during the riots. It will now pay about $3 million to convert half of Western to maximum security. Most of the cost will be for installation of a lethal electrified fence around the maximum security portion of the prison.

The DOC has already set that money aside.

A small staff will maintain Crossroads, which contains power generation for both facilities.

"We want to make sure (that Crossroads is) available," Parson said. "If we felt like the tide had turned a little bit and we were going to incarcerate more, we wanted to have it available. But right now, it's going to stay in place to see if we need it or not."

He added — hopefully — down the road the state could reconfigure the property for some other piece of state government.

Most important, Precythe said, employees are getting a break.

"The beauty of the plan," she said, "is it gives my staff — who are exhausted, who are stressed, who have been working much-needed mandatory overtime — a well-deserved pay increase."