ST. LOUIS — Perhaps no one is happier with the opening of the state's new Chillicothe women's prison than the female offenders of its counterpart in Vandalia.
The new facility in northwest Missouri that opened last week will relieve overcrowding at Vandalia, in the northeast corner of the state, where nerves have been frayed and services stretched to accommodate the crush of female offenders.
Missouri's female offender population, like that of the nation, is rising at a higher rate than men's — 150 percent over the past decade, to 2,500 women. That's despite the state Department of Corrections' best efforts to reduce the number of women who return to prison after release.
"There's not enough food, not enough clothes, not enough room,'' said Vandalia offender Karla Trimble, 44, of Jefferson City, who's serving time for a drug conviction. "Right now, it's way overcrowded.''
The Vandalia prison opened in 1997 to accommodate 1,460 offenders. The original prison in Chillicothe, built as an "industrial home for girls'' in the 1800s with more recent additions last century, capped its population at 525.
So when the number of women offenders rose, Vandalia took the overflow. Four years ago, the numbers really started to swell because of increased drug violations, which account for 41 percent of the population, warden Cyndi Prudden said.
In the past few years, Vandalia has exceeded its capacity by as many as 640 women. In recent months, the overflow has been about 500.
That's meant six-person, rather than the usual four-person, cells, clothing shortages, longer waits for food in the chow line, even time restrictions in the chapel, library, recreation areas and visiting room.
"With six women per room, you have six personalities, different habits, values, belief systems,'' Prudden said. "Even four is challenging. There's less privacy, and the incidence of people not getting along goes up.
"There has been an increase in (conduct) violations, assaults on staff and inmates. You have more people to commit more of them. With 500 fewer inmates, officers will have better control of cell searches.''
Trimble said living in a room with five other women can be stressful, that "personalities don't always mesh,'' and that the spike in prisoners has placed a work load on the institution's staff that is "way above and beyond what they can handle.''
The increased numbers have stressed such fundamentals as utilities and mail-handling operations.
The old prison in Chillicothe, while not crowded, has had its own problems, mostly due to the facility's age and configuration.
Prepared food had to be rolled in carts from the kitchen to the gymnasium, where it was served, and down the stairs, three times a day.
The layout of the old prison didn't offer adequate "sight lines'' for staff, afforded inmates too much privacy, and made it easier for contraband to enter. The old prison is in the heart of town, which made it easier for people to lob things over the fence to offenders and caused traffic lines until idling trucks carrying food and supplies got approval to enter the prison gate.
"We're going to miss some of the character,'' Chillicothe warden Jennifer Miller said. "It's home. It's comfortable. But we're not going to miss the power outages, the collapsed sewer lines, the constant repairs and old wiring.
"These housing units were built in the '30s and '40s, when women rolled their hair and let it dry naturally. We've pushed the abilities of the utilities. We've evolved beyond our construction, what it was originally designed for.''
The city of Chillicothe made an offer of donated land to help persuade the state to rebuild there. The old prison property will be deeded to the city, and a process is under way to determine its next use.
"We've had a good relationship,'' Chillicothe city administrator Dean Brookshier said. "We welcome them. We want them to stay. They're great economically and good neighbors. They help us. We help them.''
On Friday, the corrections department said it completed a transfer of 525 inmates from the 121-year-old Chillicothe prison to the new 1,636-inmate facility north of town. Hundreds more inmates from Vandalia will be brought in gradually over the next few weeks to ease crowding there.
The new prison also will share the diagnostic and screening function for all new offenders entering the prison system that up till now has been Vandalia's exclusive charge. Chillicothe, like Vandalia, now will offer drug treatment. However, Vandalia will continue to be the only prison that houses pregnant inmates.
From 1985 to 2000, the female offender population in Missouri was doubling every five years. The increase has slowed since 2000 but is still greater than that of males.
The national consensus is that women are being held more accountable, more as equals to men, by the courts and society at large, Corrections Director Larry Crawford said
They're also seeing higher rates of convictions for drug use and sales.
David Oldfield, director of research for corrections, said in a report that women are much more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses — and less likely for violent crimes — than males.
Missouri's women offenders are more likely than their male counterparts to be white and have much higher levels of mental illness.
Their top five crimes, in order, are possession of a controlled substance, forgery, distribution of a controlled substance, theft and second-degree murder.
When Crawford assumed his post in 2005, he assembled a team to explore ways to reduce repeat offenses among female offenders, including finding them better social and job supports upon release. The rate went down for three straight years but has begun to rise again.
"I had to do something,'' he said. "I didn't envision us building a prison with the budget at that time. We just barely made it."