Behind new bars

The new Jefferson City prison is up and running.
Monday, November 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The road to Algoma Correctional Facility is narrow and winding, beset by dead, brown grass. The prison is on a hill, its rusted barbed wire and paint-peeled watchtowers reminders of the conditions that pushed the state of Missouri to construct a new prison, which sits on 144 acres at the bottom of the hill.

The new Jefferson City Correctional Center, which opened in September at a cost of $128 million, is all concrete and asphalt. The low-slung housing units, with their blue-tiled roofs, contrast starkly with the drab, monotonous gray of the rest of the facility. Inside, from floor to ceiling, everything looks and smells fresh. Inmates, who crisscross the building’s interior in teams of two with mop and bucket in hand, scrub the floors to a white sheen. This is a place that concerns itself primarily with efficiency. Under the circumstances, this means constant vigilance.

Nearly 2,000 prisoners are housed at the center, separated into wings by a building that contains classrooms, a computer lab and a law library. Inmates are divided into two blocks; the unruly and unstable who require isolation from the general population are placed in an administrative segregation wing.

The office of prison superintendent Dave Dormire is in the back of the administrative wing. The beige cubicles and the constant beep of fax machines give no indication that convicted murderers and rapists walk less than 50 yards away. Dressed comfortably in an ivory-colored oxford shirt and red tie, Dormire leans back in his chair and talks about the new prison with obvious pride.

“This place was designed for the inmate’s safety,” he says. “It’s a cleaner, healthier environment. The air is conditioned. We’re able to keep a closer watch on the guards and prisoners.”

Dormire began his career in the prison

system as a guard at the old Missouri State Penitentiary, which was once known as “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” The state pen opened in 1836 and housed such infamous cons as bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd and boxer Sonny Liston. In 1968, James Earl Ray escaped, traveled to Memphis and shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Through the years, the practical difficulties of keeping the penitentiary running became more obvious. In August 1998 and again in February 2000, inmates briefly, and uneventfully, took corrections officers hostage. In March 2002, an officer was found smuggling marijuana into the facility. Two months later, a 100-foot section of the limestone wall surrounding the facility collapsed.

“The old place was chaos,” recalls corrections officer Michael Cahill, one of more than 650 people who work at the new center.

Cahill began working at the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1996, in one of the most dangerous areas of the prison, the dining room. At mealtime, groups of prisoners would stake out territories, usually along racial lines, putting corrections officers in the no-man’s land in between.

Not only is the new prison a nicer place to work, Cahill says, the day-to-day management of the inmates is aimed at heading off trouble before it starts.

“Here, when the guys come out, they never know which dining room they’re going to eat in,” Cahill says. “It’s broken up a lot of the cliques, made it easier for us to identify people.”

Instead of watchtowers, which Dormire says required 45 corrections officers to man, spread out along the prison wall, the new prison features a highly charged electrical barrier topped with barbed wire called the “lethal fence.” The single-story setup, with wings divided by the lethal fence, has eased the load on corrections officers.

Changes in the way the state prison system operates go beyond new facilities and improved security measures. The new center features a 288-bed drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for long-term and high-risk offenders. Other programs for inmates, long considered state-of-the-art by national standards, seem to have benefited from the construction of a state-of-the-art facility, Dormire says.

At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 240 pounds Johnnie Williams is hard to miss. A former Division I college football player, Williams said that, as an athlete, life was often much too easy. Seated awkwardly in a too-small chair in a prison classroom, Williams recalls his attraction to the “street life,” which only heightened once he was no longer a star on the field.

“I sold drugs, used drugs,” he says, his eyes wandering around the room. A few feet away, a dozen of his fellow inmates hover over art projects.

Like many troubled drug users, Williams turned to crime to feed his lifestyle. He was eventually arrested for armed robbery, and in 1996, he was sentenced to 20 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. At first, his life behind prison walls wasn’t that different from the one he’d lead on the outside.

“When I got here I was fighting all the time, using drugs,” Williams says. “Just that street lifestyle that I brought in here.”

In 2001, Williams was caught with marijuana and sent to “the hole,” an ill-kept wing of the old prison where troublesome inmates were isolated. The conditions were such that Williams contracted pneumonia. While in the prison infirmary, he came to the conclusion that “change was what I needed.”

He enrolled in a class for inmates on the impact of crime. In the class, he had a chance to talk with victims — wives, husbands, sons and daughters whose lives were changed by violent crime.

“I’m looking at these people, these sweet ladies that look like my momma, my grandmother,” Williams says. “I asked myself who could do these types of crimes. Then I looked at it and said, ‘Hey, I’m that type of guy.’”

Williams then decided to take his life in a different direction. After graduating from the prison education program, he became a facilitator, an inmate who consults with other inmates on their behavior and how they can work to correct it.

“Once you change the attitude,” Williams says, “you change the results.”

Williams and the men he works with in the prison have adopted a slogan for their efforts: “No More Victims.” The slogan is also the title of a rap CD that Williams has written and produced. Williams snaps on a CD player and begins to rap along with a song, in which Williams imagines himself the parent of a child killed in a drunken-driving accident. When the chorus arrives, 12 heads suddenly shoot up from elsewhere in the room and echo the chorus.

“It’s gotta stop,” the inmates sing in unison.

Williams looks over his shoulder. Behind him is a blue bulletin board, covered with pictures of men and women, young and old. “Those are the victims, right there,” he says. “It’s there to remind us, every day.”

There are other reminders: the bars and walls, the lethal fence, the guards. But Williams can envision a future too. And at a time when sympathy for those who commit violent crimes is hard to come by, the Missouri prison system hopes to help inmates avoid the substance abuse, mental health problems and chronic unemployment that brings so many of them back.

“We can eliminate a void after offenders are released, when they try to figure out how to successfully acclimate back into their families and communities,” said Tom Clements, chairman of the steering committee for the Missouri Re-entry Process, a statewide program to decrease criminal recidivism.

But, as Johnnie Williams can testify, the process has to begin within each individual inmate.

“We can change,” Williams said. “People can change. I don’t want to die in prison.”

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