It’s not the first reaction you might expect.
But nearby Kansas City businesses are cheering, not jeering, the state of Missouri’s announcement that it will create a minimum-security prison in the West Bottoms this fall.
That’s because they see a prison at 651 Mulberry St. as a big improvement over what’s there now.
For years, the existing corrections facility has housed up to 400 people on probation or parole, releasing them every weekday morning, often to spend their days wandering around downtown.
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The Missouri Department of Corrections says it needs the prison bed space. And Kansas City officials say they want a change from the long-standing loitering and other problems associated with the Kansas City Community Release Center.
“They do need the beds, and we need to not have 410 individuals released every morning into our community,” said Downtown Council Vice President Sean O’Byrne.
O’Byrne has been in talks for several years with corrections officials, seeking solutions to so many ex-offenders streaming from the West Bottoms into downtown every day.
While many of those individuals use the time productively to find jobs and homes, O’Byrne and others say the release center is a failed corrections model and bad for the community.
Most notoriously, Bernard Jackson, known as the Waldo rapist, was living at 651 Mulberry when he was arrested in 2010.
But more typically, the facility houses ex-felons who sometimes are arrested for trespassing, drunk and disorderly behavior, theft or property damage.
“Those were things that needed to be addressed for the burgeoning retail, residential, convention business and office business,” O’Byrne said.
As downtown has added an elementary school and early childhood center — and as it prepares to launch a free downtown streetcar service — city officials say it has become ever more imperative to address potential risks from the proximity of ex-offenders.
The release center, at 651 Mulberry since December 1998, has been designated for high-risk people released from state prison who had no home base to go to. Kansas City receives all those people folks from west of Jefferson City, while St. Louis gets those on the eastern half of the state.
Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi acknowledges the facility has caused consternation but emphasizes that’s not the reason for the change.
“We were aware of some of the concerns. That’s yesterday,” he said in a telephone interview from Jefferson City, adding that the main issue is the state’s rising prison population and this building’s availability to house more than 400 inmates.
He said the conversion, expected by September, will make the facility a more secure environment, where mostly nonviolent offenders will spend their time instead of leaving during the day.
Those placed at the prison will be from the Kansas City area, rather than people without community ties.
Kansas City officials say this can’t help but be an improvement. It will also save local taxpayer dollars because the prison will have a medical unit, while the release center does not.
Since 2010, the city has averaged more than 400 ambulance calls per year to 651 Mulberry, often resulting in expensive emergency care at Truman Medical Center. It’s currently Kansas City’s No. 1 ambulance call location and has cost city taxpayers millions of dollars over the past five years.
“That lack (of medical services) at the facility was very costly to us, including on the medical providers,” said Mike Schumacher, assistant to City Manager Troy Schulte. “We’re very supportive of this change.”
While the West Bottoms is seeing an upswing in residential and commercial development, the facility at 651 Mulberry is in an industrial area where a low-slung prison can blend in. The Historic West Bottoms Association, an umbrella group of 175 businesses, supports the change.
“Having a pre-release center was a concern, wanting to make sure our employees were safe,” said Scott Brown, general counsel for Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Co., located near 651 Mulberry. Brown said there were no actual altercations with the center’s residents, but having those parolees wandering the streets could be intimidating, and a secure facility will be more reassuring.
Still, some people — including some residents of the current center — aren’t convinced this is an ideal solution.
The Central Library downtown has been a major daily gathering spot for as many as 50 to 80 of the center’s residents.
Kansas City Public Library Executive Director Crosby Kemper III says he has mixed feelings about closing the center.
“Yeah, it will improve things downtown generally, especially at the library,” he said. “These guys were obviously the most serious criminal element around.”
But they were also the library’s constituents, he added, and many got vital help with job applications, computer skills, high school equivalency tests and other services. Kemper said it will be more expensive to provide those services to a secure West Bottoms facility, and he wonders how the people living there now will get help in the future.
He’s highly skeptical that enough resources will exist to deal with the type of people the pre-release center has served.
Chris Kruse, an ex-offender at 651 Mulberry, raised the same concern.
While Kruse said the release center is far from perfect, he noted it is a safe place for parolees to stay while they try to put their lives back together.
“What they’re doing is they’re messing with a really good asset,” Kruse said, wondering where people like him will be able to go once the center closes.
“Already the homeless shelters are at capacity,” he said.
Lombardi has pledged that the present residents will get assistance in finding new homes, and that the department will work with local agencies to transition future parolees from the prison into the community in other ways. He said there will be grant funding, although he couldn’t say how much, to assist in that regard.
“We’re not going to throw them out on the street,” he said.
O’Byrne and Schumacher said one advantage is that Kansas City will not be getting 400 people dumped at any given time from all over the western half of the state. They believe local agencies like the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Second Chance and others can deal with the smaller numbers of parolees, who will already have family ties to the Kansas City area.
“This will be a better deal for the taxpayers and it’ll be a better environment for downtown,” O’Byrne said. “And by the way, at the end of the day, it’s going to be a much better solution for those clients that are going through the system.”