Government & Politics

‘Unprecedented’ riot, lockdown leave scars as Missouri prison struggles to recover

Jeanette Price finally looked into her imprisoned husband’s face again, shaken by what she saw looking back at her.

When he reached for her hands, she saw the knobs of wrist bones in his thinning arms. She saw his sunken eyes.

The toll of an unprecedented, months-long lockdown in an overburdened and understaffed Missouri prison had hollowed him out, she said.

Roosevelt Price, serving time for a second-degree murder conviction 24 years ago, did not participate in the May 12 riot that tore up Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.

But he, like the rest of the inmates shared in the painful repercussions.

The prison is struggling to recover — working to rebuild staff, ease the lockdown, restore suspended programs and reassure concerned lawmakers — amid a rising tide of anger, threats of a class-action lawsuit, and a petition to remove the warden.

Roosevelt Price had been put into what inmates call “The Hole,” or solitary segregation, only because some inmates had to go there to get bed space. When Jeanette was finally allowed to visit him again Aug. 24, it had been 104 days since the riot.

With the kitchen busted up in the riot, he’d gotten cold, boxed meals. Security concerns and low staffing meant he was rarely allowed out of his cell. Cleanliness suffered. The loss of programs was dispiriting and the loneliness suffocating.

“He was so hungry,” Jeanette Price said. She brought dollars when she visited him, knowing in the visiting room there would be vending machines. They talked as much as they could while he devoured some $25 worth of food.

“He ate chicken hot wings, a turkey sandwich, a beef wrap, two bags of chips, chocolate milk, chocolate Zingers,” his wife said, “and a Sprite.”

If only the rest of the prison’s problems could be assuaged so easily.

“Truly, the Crossroads situation is unprecedented in Missouri,” state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann wrote in an email to The Star. “We have never before faced such utter destruction on the scale that occurred . . . and I’m not aware of any comparable situation in another state.”

The riot began after 209 inmates staged a sit-in, refusing to leave the dining hall and return to their cells — airing grievances over reductions in recreation time and several programs. After awhile, 131 inmates complied, but 78 who remained began destroying the central services building.

The inmates and the staff vacated the building while local law enforcement and the Missouri Highway Patrol came to negotiate an end to the standoff, but rioting that lasted some six hours would make life worse for everyone at Crossroads, which houses some 1,500 medium and maximum security inmates.

The DOC published an updated timeline Wednesday on its ongoing effort to restore services, continuing to move step by step into lesser degrees of lockdown. There will be some meals outside of cells, an increase in recreation time, and normal visiting schedules by Sept. 14, the department said.

The fact that Crossroads remains in some state of lockdown after nearly four months is highly unusual across the nation, said Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University in New Jersey who specializes in studying violence in correctional institutions.

States sometimes have to allocate emergency funds, relocate prison staff or mandate overtime, but usually lockdowns are eased more quickly, she said.

State Rep. Brandon Ellington was turned away from Crossroads a week ago — in apparent violation of state law — when he attempted to visit the prison for a second time since the riot. He announced Wednesday he was pursuing records of department communications since the riot.

He said in a written statement that he was not satisfied with the DOC’s response after he met with DOC Director Anne Precythe Wednesday.

“I believe that by further investigating the incidents and reports of Crossroads’ unsafe environment,” he said, “we will uncover several human rights and constitutional violations.”

Missouri and its Crossroads situation present unusual difficulties. The state stands near the top of the nation’s prison boom through the 1990s and 2000s, with 32,000 people now in its state prisons, four times the number imprisoned at the start of the 1980s.

Missouri’s incarceration rate — with 859 people in state prison or jail per 100,000 people in 2016 — was the 10th highest in the nation.

But the system is currently 11 percent understaffed, Pojmann said. Crossroads in particular is trying to recruit corrections officers.

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A billboard facing northbound traffic on Interstate 35 near Kearney advertises the state’s efforts to hire more staff for Crossroads Correctional Center some 30 miles north in Cameron, Mo. Joe Robertson The Kansas City Star

The lockdown measures persisted in large part because the corrections officers that were there feared for their safety amid the understaffing while receiving threats of inmate violence.

The riot damaged the kitchen, dining areas, factories, food storage, offices, tools and machinery, as well as security doors that are difficult to replace or repair, Pojmann said.

Latahra Smith, a private investigator who organized the group Missouri Families for Inmate Rights after the Crossroads lockdown, welcomed the state’s plan to loosen restrictions but the conditions and tension that stirred inmates’ unrest in May remain a concern, she said. A petition campaign to remove warden Ronda Pash continues.

“We’re happy to see the step-down in place,” she said. “But it doesn’t stop here. We want the removal of Ronda Pash.”

Pojmann said Pash remains the warden at Crossroads and said the DOC has no comment on the petition against her.

Smith said she has gathered more than 200 letters from inmates sharing their concerns and many are now writing in hopes of joining a potential class-action lawsuit, she said.

One of those inmates happened to call his daughter, Cara Hill of Kansas City, while Hill was meeting with Smith and Jeanette Price and speaking with a reporter.

Hill’s father told The Star that the Crossroads administration was mishandling its staffing problems and stoking inmates’ anger by closing programs. And then they were not prepared when the riot erupted.

“They knew it was coming,” he said. “But the administration and staff responsible for our safety, they allowed inmates to destroy at will.”

The father’s frustrations were many, including being limited to one 30-minute break a day — which gave no time for physical activity since it was also their only opportunity to shower, get ice and use the phone. He also mentioned the closing of the inmates’ barbershop, the cold meals, the suspension of self-improvement classes and being denied access to the law library.

But the hardest repercussion of the riot was the drastic reduction of visiting hours, he said. What had been eight opportunities for visits a month became one.

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Cara Hill, right, of Kansas City, and her 2-year-old son pose with her father inside Crossroads Correctional Center in November 2017. Hill’s father has been at Crossroads for the last eight years after entering the prison system for a second-degree murder conviction 10 years ago. Photo courtesy Cara Hill

It frustrated him that the prison could still staff regular, intense searches of cells the inmates call “raids,” but was not able to staff the visitation area to allow for more visits.

“They’re ripping me from my children and grandchildren,” said the father, who is serving time for a second-degree murder conviction from 2009. “Without my family I have nothing.”

Extended lockdowns, staffing shortages and the deprivation of programming usually only add to “simmering tension” between inmates and officers, said Benjamin Steiner, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

“Prisons are a fairly depriving environment,” he said. The more programs and activities you take away from the prisoners, the harder it is to live peacefully in the prison.

“Those are tools to manage inmate time and keep them safe. It’s difficult for inmates and also for staff. It hurts everybody,” he said.

Smith, the organizer of the inmates’ families, said the men held in Crossroads have been convicted of crimes but they are not serving life sentences.

The mission of rehabilitation has to be protected, she said.

“These men are going to come back into our society and we want them to be productive citizens,” she said. “They need to be treated like humans.”

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