Government & Politics

Switch to prison coming soon for West Bottoms community release center

The Kansas City Community Release Center, at 651 Mulberry St. in the West Bottoms, next to the Lewis and Clark Viaduct, is being converted into a minimum-security prison.
The Kansas City Community Release Center, at 651 Mulberry St. in the West Bottoms, next to the Lewis and Clark Viaduct, is being converted into a minimum-security prison. kmyers@kcstar.com

A new prison will soon open in the West Bottoms, and, in this case, most people are genuinely happy about that.

Beginning this month, the building at 651 Mulberry St. will become a minimum-security prison, housing inmates nearing parole, who will get housing and job assistance to aid their return to society.

The newly named Kansas City Re-Entry Center takes the place of the Kansas City Community Release Center, which for years released several hundred parolees daily into downtown, leading to some crime and disruptions that aggravated the business community.

“It’s better from the standpoint that we will have 400 people incarcerated as opposed to 400 people released into our community every morning,” said Downtown Council Vice President Sean O’Byrne, who has been involved for many months in negotiations with the Missouri Department of Corrections to complete this transition.

The Downtown Council had complained for years that too many high-risk ex-offenders on parole supervision were streaming into downtown from the release center, which is in an industrial section of the West Bottoms.

While many of those men used the time productively to get their acts together, others were arrested for trespassing, drunk and disorderly conduct, theft and property damage.

The Downtown Council appealed to the Missouri Department of Corrections to fix what it believed was a failed corrections model. While corrections officials don’t concede that failure, they needed additional prison beds to alleviate overcrowding and announced plans last February to convert the facility into a place that would house inmates round-the-clock.

Each inmate is expected to stay there about six to nine months, while they find housing and jobs.

“They will not leave the facility until they are ready to leave permanently,” Missouri Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi said in a telephone interview with The Kansas City Star.

Lombardi said the target conversion time is still Tuesday , although that date is flexible. While the facility has a capacity of about 400 offenders, Lombardi said it will start with a small population and ramp up slowly.

“We have to do this the correct way. It’s an issue for the staff as well, to learn the operation,” Lombardi said.

The facility will be for people generally from the metro area who are nearing their parole date, and it could include people with violent felonies in their past. But Lombardi said they have to demonstrate appropriate and good behavior to qualify for placement there.

The building required few modifications since it already was housing about 400 people at night, but a new fence and cameras have been installed around a new exercise yard.

Lombardi said the transition planning has gone smoothly, in part because of good cooperation from the Downtown Council, the city, Jackson County and a host of social service agencies that have received grants to provide housing assistance, job and life-skills training, educational and employment opportunities and other re-entry services.

Residents of the existing release center have been moved to new homes by attrition over the past six months.

O’Byrne noted that as the release center has been phased out, the scuffles, fights, loud behavior and other disciplinary problems it caused downtown have also diminished by more than half. The Downtown Library, which was often a gathering spot for release center residents, confirmed it has had fewer incidents related to 651 Mulberry.

“I am mailing fewer letters of suspension to that address, and the ambassadors are responding to fewer incidents of unacceptable behavior from that population,” Central Library Director Lillie Brack said in an email.

Because the release center did not have its own clinic in recent years, Kansas City used to send more ambulances to 651 Mulberry than to any other location in the city, costing local taxpayers millions of dollars. But those calls have also dropped precipitously, from 135 calls between May and July 2014 to 24 calls over the same period this year.

The prison will have its own round-the-clock medical service, so the drag on Kansas City ambulances should be lessened, Lombardi said.

The true advantage of this new facility, proponents argue, is the services that will be provided in-house, rather than relying on parolees to seek them on their own in downtown.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of concentrated work on preparing them for release,” Lombardi said. “The openness of the Kansas City community for this effort is going to be very helpful in terms of jobs and places to live.”

O’Byrne said the Downtown Council has worked to assure that each inmate has a home plan when he leaves. “These folks will have a better opportunity for success based upon what we’re putting together,” he said. “This an opportunity for us to really say Missouri got it right.”

The department of corrections has awarded $50,000 grants each to Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Second Chance re-entry program and Connections to Success to work with inmates.

The Second Chance program, run by the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, will use the money to provide inmates with rental assistance, said Crime Commission Vice President Barry Mayer.

Mayer said housing is available in the metro area and Second Chance will guide inmates to those units, as well as help inmates re-connect with their families and find jobs.

Mayer said the collaboration with other agencies should work well, adding, “I think we’re going to be able to help them quite a bit.”

Brandi Jahnke, regional executive director with Connections to Success, and Jan Motl, director of workforce development with Catholic Charities, agreed.

Jahnke said Connections to Success will provide some inmates with volunteer mentors to help them navigate back into society. It will also provide fatherhood training and other employment and parenting support.

Motl said Catholic Charities has helped ex-offenders re-integrate into society for more than 10 years, so will bring those same services to this facility.

The organization provides job preparation workshops and also helps inmates find employment in food service, warehouses, nursing assistance programs, auto mechanics and other industries.

Still, this is a pilot project and it remains to be seen how well it will work.

Kansas City Public Library Director Crosby Kemper III wonders what will happen to the type of parolee whom the release center served, now that that facility is closing.

He pointed out that while release center residents sometimes disrupted the Central Library operations, other parolees got great help at the library with literacy services, GEDs, computer skills training and their job searches.

He believes the new prison’s inmates will also require those types of classes, but said the library will need some financial support to offer its services at the prison facility.

“We’re talking to them about that and hope this will work out,” he said.

The city is optimistic this facility will be a better fit for downtown than the old release center, said Mike Schumacher, assistant to the city manager. But he and others say they will remain vigilant in case problems arise.

“We’re going to remain engaged in the conversation,” he said. “The city does have a vested interest in re-entry, to make sure that they’re given every opportunity to be successful on their release.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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