Missouri's newest prison opens to the public

Friday, June 25, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A new, high-tech prison for the state's most violent criminals opened its doors to the public Thursday, but it will be a few months before inmates move in.

Officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in a gymnasium of the Jefferson City Correctional Center with Gov. Bob Holden, legislators and local leaders.

The state's newest prison is a replacement for the nearly 170-year-old Missouri State Penitentiary. It cost about $128 million to build, will have 1,996 beds for maximum security male inmates and will employ about 690 people.

But before the inmates arrive, the state still must put the finishing touches on the prison, which needs beds in its cells; tables and chairs in the dining room; furnishings in its education, medical and library facilities; and continued tests of its security systems.

"This facility offers a significant improvement in terms of safety, security, efficiency and cost," Gary Kempker, director of the state Department of Corrections, said during the ceremony.

The new prison is located on a 160-acre site about eight miles east of Jefferson City. The old prison is in downtown Jefferson City, a few blocks from the state Capitol. Both are located along the Missouri River.

Holden called the new complex an "important tool to fight crime in our state" and said the modern amenities should make corrections workers' jobs safer.

The Missouri State Penitentiary is the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi River. It once held Pretty Boy Floyd and James Earl Ray, who killed Martin Luther King Jr. after escaping from prison in Missouri.

Last year, a convicted murderer was killed at the prison and two suspects -- also convicted murderers -- went missing for days before authorities found them hiding under a staircase in the basement ice house where the killing occurred.

Prison officials said the incident highlighted problems with the old facility, which has numerous nooks and crannies that can serve as hiding places, buildings of all shapes and sizes, and a hilly terrain.

'Clearly out of date'

"It's just clearly out of date," Kempker said. "The penitentiary lends itself to those types of incidents much more than the modern facility."

The new prison is on relatively flat ground, and no buildings are more than two stories high. The complex is designed so officers can easily view all of the grounds, pipes are above ground, and the buildings for housing inmates are laid out so all rooms can be seen and communicated with from a central control room.

The new prison is more secure, prison officials say, thanks to its design, carefully laid-out security cameras, an electric fence and motion detectors to tell employees if an inmate is in an area that's off-limits.

Kempker said officials still are considering whether to purchase technology that would electronically track each prisoner and guard to monitor their whereabouts at all times.

The modern facility should save money over time, officials say, both from needing fewer employees to work in guard towers -- from 15 at the old prison to two at the new one -- and from new buildings that should cost less to heat, cool and light. The new prison also will serve as a central point to cook food for seven prisons in central Missouri.

The prison also will continue programs in place at the old facility, including the production of furniture and license plates.

The new prison will be open for public tours Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. Officials gave no specific date for when inmates would arrive.

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