Northwest Missouri private jails get prisoners from Iowa

Monday, January 12, 2004

BETHANY, Mo. (AP) -- Hoping to house prisoners from Iowa, a group of investors plans to build a jail here, just 20 miles north of another private jail.

Polk County, Iowa, which is two hours north of here, has 800 prisoners on an average day and a county jail that holds only 550, according to county jail chief Randy Cross. And while private companies can't operate jails in Iowa, Missouri has no state oversight of private jails.

"I look at it as an opportunity," said state Rep. Jim Whorton, D-Trenton. "We have to have some degree of economic base -- and incarceration, like it or not, is a major part of that in northwest Missouri."

Private companies can build jails in northern Missouri for a fraction of the price of an Iowa county jail, offering beds to Polk County for less than what officials there could find in their area. Most private jails also transport prisoners.

Located along Interstate 35 in Pattonsburg, Midwest Security Housing employs 50 to 60 people and runs near its 240-bed capacity, with half the prisoners coming from Polk County, Iowa, said Phil Adams, chief of custody. Cross said Polk County saves $20 per day for each prisoner who goes to Pattonsburg instead of another Iowa county jail.

Within six months, a 290-bed facility also could be up and running along Interstate 35 in nearby Bethany, housing more Iowa prisoners and providing about 40 jobs to the area. John Koester of Des Moines and his group of investors, Polk County Land and Leasing Group, is waiting on final approval to buy 15 acres from Bethany so it can build the 32,000-square-foot, $3.6 million jail.

But revenue Missouri jails get from those excess Iowa prisoners could dry up if a new jail is built in Polk County.

Cross said a tax measure to build a new 1,500-bed jail in Polk County most likely will appear on the November ballot. It would take at least three years to build, and county projections show the jail would save the county $39 million in the next 20 years. Voters turned down a jail tax in 1995.

But both Phil Adams, chief of custody at Midwest Security Housing, and Koester are confident that their jails will survive.

"It's a possibility, not a probability," Koester said of the jail tax being approved.

"If it does (pass), we would find prisoners from other places. Our primary goal is to serve Iowa, but we're prepared to serve other markets."

Daviess County, Mo., for instance, does not have a county jail and sends its 25 to 30 daily prisoners to the Pattonsburg jail and a private facility in Henrietta.

Daviess County Sheriff Kevin Heldenbrand said he would like to see nearby counties cooperate in building a regional jail, but for now the private jails offer the best alternative.

Heldenbrand, who worked for almost 10 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections, said he would like to see some state oversight to make sure private jails have standardized policies.

"I keep pretty good tabs on Midwest," he said, "but all I can do is make suggestions."

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