Missouri lawmaker trying to inspect prison is rebuffed on video, warden cancels visit

A Missouri lawmaker standing at the entry of the riot-weary Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo., Thursday knew he was going to be kept outside despite state law that guarantees legislators like him access.

But state Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, showed up anyway, with his phone recording video.

Ellington has been looking into the concerns of many inmates in the facility, which was in its 110th straight day of some degree of lockdown since a May 12 riot.

He had visited the facility three weeks ago, but this time the warden said he must meet with the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections — Anne Precythe — before he would be allowed a visit.

Ellington had been advised that the meeting he had arranged with inmates was not going to happen.

But state law allows members of the state General Assembly to visit at any time.

“Now not only do I have concerns about taxpayer dollars . . . (and) about the people who are confined to this facility,” Ellington said, “I now have concerns about the warden breaking state statute and state law.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said Ellington was told he couldn’t visit Thursday, but it didn’t mean he could not visit at all. The lawmaker wanted to meet with several inmates, Pojmann said, and Precythe wanted Ellington to talk to her before accommodating that request.

Ellington, in a phone interview later Thursday afternoon, said he thinks the department is stalling his plans to visit. He said he had filed a formal complaint with the governor’s officer over Thursday’s denial.

“I believe they are engaging in a conspiracy to keep the conditions of a state facility secret,” he said.

The prison system has been hampered by statewide staffing shortages as it has worked to overcome the damage that was done during the six-hour riot.

The riot began after 209 inmates held a sit-down protest, refusing to rise from their dining hall seats. Most of the inmates eventually agreed to return to their cells, but 78 instead began to damage the facility.

The rest of the inmates and prison staff vacated the Central Services Building where the riot erupted, while local police and the Missouri Highway Patrol responded to help secure the scene. A peace was negotiated about 2 a.m. May 13. But severe damage had been done in the dining halls, the kitchen, in offices and vocational areas.

Security doors were also damaged and replacement materials have been hard to obtain, Pojmann said.

At the time of the riot, Pojmann reported that Crossroads was down 80 of about 400 positions, including 70 correctional officers.

Thursday, she said the DOC is not releasing staffing numbers for individual facilities because of security concerns. But she said that, statewide, 11 percent of the positions involved in overseeing inmates are open.

A billboard on Interstate 35 near Kearney advertises that Crossroads is hiring correctional officers.

crossroads prison billboard.jpg
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

Inmates were already complaining that Crossroads was reducing recreation time and several programs before the riot. The lockdown status since then has come with many complaints about health and sanitary conditions, food service, blocked or reduced visitation times, recreation time out of cells and other concerns.

The DOC has a webpage updating the status of services that have been slowly returning to Crossroads. Visitations and recreation minutes are increasing, Pojmann said, and many services are returning.

But Ellington cites dozens of letters from inmates that tell him many services remain unavailable.

“We will continue to put pressure on the lack of transparency,” Ellington said.