JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri is edging closer to having one fewer state prison as part of a push by Gov. Mike Parson to boost pay for some of the lowest paid correctional officers in the nation.
The Missouri Department of Corrections isn’t offering a specific date for the closure of the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, but the head of the union representing prison guards said reports last week showed the facility had between 100 and 120 inmates left, indicating that the prison is nearing its end.
“I think they are really close to shutting it down,” said Gary Gross, executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
The looming closure of a maximum-security facility built to hold 1,440 of the state’s most dangerous inmates comes 13 months after hundreds of prisoners rioted over conditions at the prison, which were exacerbated by short staffing.
In January, as part of Parson’s $30 billion budget proposal, the Republican governor said mothballing the prison will save an estimated $20 million that could be used to provide long-needed raises to guards and other prison employees.
One factor in deciding to close the facility is a drop in the number of inmates in the 21 prisons across the state. As of last week, the total statewide prison population was 28,141, down from 32,008 as of April 2018, Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said Monday.
Officials say the decrease is partly because of changes to the state’s criminal code that went into effect in 2017, which have led to fewer people being sentenced to prison.
Among those changes was the elimination of jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana and the removal of sentences that did not include a chance at parole or probation for habitual drug offenders.
The closure comes just 22 years after Crossroads opened at a construction cost of about $53 million. Among its features was a lethal perimeter electric fence, the first of its kind in Missouri. The fence was nicknamed “The Intimidator.”
Although many Crossroads offenders have been transferred to other maximum-security facilities, some will be going to the neighboring Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, a town of about 10,000 residents in northwest Missouri.
Western is being converted to half maximum security and half medium security. The prison is built in two sections, which will help facilitate keeping the two populations separate, Pojmann said.
But, there also are changes underway to Western.
Officials have budgeted at least $3 million to install extra fencing. Also in the works are taller interior fences with additional razor wire, an additional observation tower, more patrol vehicles and improved locks at a total cost of about $300,000.
Once completed, Western will hold about 1,600 inmates in a facility built to house 1,800.
The closure also has thrown a wrench into Cameron’s budget.
City Manager Steve Rasmussen said the city-owned utility, which has sold electric, water and sewer services to the prison, will lose a customer that accounts for about $1.5 million in revenue.
“That’s a significant hunk of money for this community. It’s going to result in a substantial utility rate increase for the public here,” Rasmussen said.
In August, the City Council will begin putting the final touches on its budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. It likely will feature a 10% to 15% utility rate increase, Rasmussen said.
“We will see where we can cut in other areas. But, it will be a noticeable increase,” he said.
Pojmann said the city’s estimated loss could be substantially less because some utilities, like electric and water, will continue to be used to keep Crossroads from falling into disrepair.
In addition, she said the population of the combined prisons will be similar to what it was when they were separate, meaning water use won’t be drastically reduced.
“It definitely won’t be anywhere near $1.5 million,” Pojmann said.
Prison workers, meanwhile, saw their paychecks begin to rise when the state’s new fiscal year began July 1.
Parson hopes the increased pay will begin chipping away at a high turnover rate among employees that was blamed for the May 2018 riot.
The disturbance started when 209 inmates refused to return to their housing units. They were upset that staffing shortages had left less time for recreation and other programming.
In order to keep the facility operating, Corrections officials had resorted to busing officers from other prisons.
After six hours of unrest, in which dining halls, the kitchen and storage areas sustained an estimated $1.3 million in damage, the prison was brought back under control.