The governor's latest plan to save money within the Missouri Department of Corrections — by closing housing units inside six correctional centers — has a significant local connection.
For the 2021 budget, Gov. Mike Parson proposes the closure of housing units at Algoa and Tipton correctional centers. Other affected centers include sites at Boonville, Farmington, Northeast (in Bowling Green), and Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (in St. Joseph).
Last year, Parson and Corrections Director Anne Precythe closed Crossroads Correctional Facility — put the entire facility in mothballs and moved its 960 maximum-security prisoners to nearby Western Missouri Correctional Center, which had been exclusively a medium-security prison until that point. Both prisons are in Cameron.
The savings to the state were used to increase staff pay and to improve safety in the prisons.
All state employees saw raises on their paychecks last week, with all state workers getting a 3 percent raise.
But Corrections staff got additional raises — 1 percent for every two years of employment, capped at 10 percent.
By eliminating a building in each of the five centers this year, Corrections is also eliminating 131 vacant employee positions.
The 2021 plan is expected to save the state about $6.5 million and help it avoid about $6.6 million in maintenance costs, according to Corrections Communications Director Karen Pojmann.
The savings are expected to be used for vital infrastructure and equipment improvements department-wide, she said.
Proposed reinvestment includes:
- $1.5 million for preventative maintenance on major operating systems at all facilities.
- $3 million to expand the number of radios at all facilities and to begin a replacement cycle for radios and security cameras.
- $2 million increase in institutional repair and maintenance funding.
- $1 million to expand the probation and parole field staff vehicle fleet.
None of the affected facilities is losing staff.
At Algoa, 35 vacant positions are being eliminated. At Tipton, the department is eliminating 33 vacant positions.
"At Algoa, we'd take 452 beds and 35 full-time positions offline, enabling us to save $1,990,825 and avoiding $286,099 in maintenance costs," Pojmann said.
Algoa, with a capacity of 1,527 offenders, was about half full at the time of the announcement, Pojmann said. But, populations fluctuate quickly as the department moves offenders around, she said.
Tipton, with a capacity of 1,118 offenders, was also about half full.
In Tipton, if the plan is approved, the department would take 322 beds offline. Between that and the elimination of positions, the state is expected to save $1,859,276 and avoid $2,604,554 in maintenance costs.
The change would reduce the Tipton prison's capacity to 796 offenders and the Algoa capacity to 1,075. With current populations, both prisons would be near capacity after closing a housing unit at each prison.
The facilities that are closing across the state are old and require a lot of upkeep, Pojmann said.
Neither of the two local institutions began as prisons.
Algoa was built as a boys' school in the 1930s. Tipton was built as a reformatory in 1913, she said.
"Many of our prisons were not built to be prisons and are not ideally suited for that purpose," she said.
As law enforcement incarcerated more and more people over the years, prisons became overcrowded and evolved.
Tipton began as a training school for black girls, then became a women's prison. It later became a men's prison.
Algoa was built as a boys' intermediate reformatory and farm, and it later transformed into a men's prison.
In the fall of 2017, Corrections had more than 33,000 prisoners under lockup, and the state was considering building another prison because of overcrowding.
But changes to the criminal code began to allow judges to sentence some offenders to probation instead of prison. Today, there are 26,000 offenders in Missouri prisons.
The shrinking inmate population offered the state opportunities to address security and infrastructure concerns. The governor's plan targets the department's most challenging units to address security and infrastructure concerns.
Kelly Morriss, the Algoa warden, welcomes the change.
"To surgically close those units across the state — I've never seen that," Morriss said. "But, closing '16 House' has made this a safer institution."
"16 House" is a large, slab-sided building that stands a couple hundred yards away from other housing units in Algoa. It once served as a shoe factory. It is made up of two levels, each with wide open floors. Rows of bunk beds, about 10 beds deep, stretch along its concrete floors. Each floor is set up to house more than 200 men.
Offenders call it "the Jungle," Morriss said.
"It is a place that anybody who doesn't have a lot of corrections experience would walk in and say, 'People shouldn't be housed here,'" Morriss said.
The open layout prevents offenders from having privacy, and may lead to confrontation, Morriss said.
More modern facilities contain cells with a set of bunk beds, two lockers and a chair. The offenders, if they wish, can close themselves off from other offenders.
"(Buildings with cells) have less behavioral problems because offenders have a little bit more room," Morriss said. "The target date is to have (16 House) completely empty by June."
Offenders have been moved out of the top floor of 16 House. The bottom floor remains in use for a while. With the evacuation of 16 House, staff at the prison can house offenders there temporarily, while they make repairs and upgrades in other units. Eventually, the offenders will no longer be housed in the unit.
However, the unit can be used to move inmates around while some much-needed work is done.
Morriss is taking the opportunity to spruce up housing units and make repairs.
He's set Denver Mistler, a maintenance supervisor, to the task of organizing offenders to paint and repair the units. They are currently repainting Housing Unit 5. No longer will all the walls be black and wood lily white (a color Mistler described as white, if it's in a house where a smoker has lived for years). He's experimenting with corals, sky blues, grays, browns and yellow.
The finished products are cheerier than the old walls, inmates said.
Morale is improving, Morriss added.
Any building that is vacated is going to be maintained, said Brock Van Loo, warden at Tipton Correctional Center. The building to be closed at the site was part of the initial institution, which opened in 1916. Van Loo described it as "a historical building."
"To keep it going — heated and with staff — it's just more cost effective and efficient for everybody," Van Loo said. "We may utilize it later on. Any building that's left vacant begins to crumble. We will do routine checks on it. We will continue to use it."
By closing the unit, Van Loo said, he'll be able to keep more staff in concentrated areas.
"Everything is down to a small area," he said. "For me, it's safety for the community. It increases safety for staff and increases safety for the offender population. It's more effective and efficient."
This story was edited at 11 a.m. Feb. 3, 2020, to clarify changes made to Missouri's criminal code.