During the “get tough on crime” 1990’s Missouri’s sentencing laws took a radical transformation. Our sentencing laws were greatly influenced by what is now “commonly” referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill. The purpose of this 1994 Crime Bill as endorsed by our then president, Bill Clinton, was to “ensure that violent offenders remained incarcerated for substantial periods of time.” (Truth in Sentencing Report of May 25, 1995 – U.S. Department of Justice). Two Incentive Grants were offered up to states for their support in pursuing increases in time served for violent felonies and for states to qualify to receive the additional federal grant money promised in the legislation through the “Truth in Sentencing Incentive Grant program”.
The Truth in Sentencing Federal Grant Program required states to meet (2) two standards to qualify for federal grant money allocated through the 1994 Crime Bill. Under the first standard, states had to have laws in effect that required individuals convicted of any violent offense to serve 85% of the their sentences; and under the second standard, states were required to have increased the percentage of any violent offenders and the percentage of time they served in prison for violent offenses since the year 1993. Also under this standard states had to have laws in effect that required violent offenders with one or more previous convictions for a violent offense or a serious drug offense to serve at least 85% of their sentences (e.g., California’s Three Strikes Law and Missouri’s still existing 85% Law).
A common theme articulated by prisoners was how the state was taking funding away for rehabilitative programming inside of the prisons; thus, causing the MODOC to gradually dispose of very successful recidivist curbing and re-socialization programs. By the time I reached the MODOC in September of 1995 most of the schooling and Pell Grants had been eradicated, particularly for violent offenders. Also, removed from the system were many of the trained men and women who had facilitated the programs. The “so-called” offenders were left to reform themselves. Today, the majority of the rehabilitative programming inside is facilitated by prisoners and detainees.
Back then, it was difficult for me to relate to a prisoner nostalgically reminiscing about any time being locked up, but many prisoners did… the ones that had served before our State Penitentiaries became known as Correctional Centers and prisoners were designated offenders. I recall the older politicized prisoners admonishing us younger guys for referring to ourselves as offenders. They insisted we were convicts and prisoners not offenders! As a young kid in the system I didn’t understand the politics of prison. For me, prison was prison, but the politicized prisoners fought tooth and nail against the name change because they understood the implications of being referred to as offenders. They rejected the name because the word offender originated from the verb offend, “to sin against” in the fourteenth century, from the Latin offendere, “to hit or strike against.” They believed allowing themselves to be labeled offenders dehumanized them and criminalized them.
During the 1990’s there was a lot of state and nationwide activity revolving around the criminal justice system. The public consensus was to be tough on crime — a sentiment that had been conjured up by politicians during the 1980’s “war on crack” which converted into the “war on crime” in the 90’s. Missouri was one of the states that ultimately qualified for grant money and legislatures amended our sentencing laws to reflect the draconian sentencing changes around the nation.
Changes did not occur overnight but rather were implemented gradually over the course of a decade, approximately from 1990 to the early 2000’s. During this period of time, rehabilitation programming and the Missouri parole system were practically decimated completely. Away went the Pell Grants for higher education, the trade schools, therapeutic programs and last thing to go was GED school, particularly in the maximum level 5 prisons in the state.
Another consequence of tough on crime Judges and sentencing laws was the doubling of our prison population over a 13 year period from roughly 15,000 to 33,000 state prisoners. The population today is nearly 45,000 and Missouri’s prison population is 16 percent higher than the national average.
The grant money received by our state from the federal government as a result of our state implementing the 85% law was used in large part to build more prisons and to hire and train the staff to fill those prisons.
Clearly, the sentencing commission in Truth in Sentencing knew that more stringent sentencing laws like 85% and Three Strikes would increase the state’s prison populations, so the money offered in the grants were to be used to build more prisons and employ more administrators and staff to man those prisons (e.g. The Prison Industrial Complex).
As noted above, the Missouri state prison population is 16 percent higher than the national average. Today we have 22 prisons ironically called Correctional Centers. Out of the 22 that exist today 10 are maximum security prisons. When I entered the system in 1995 there were 4 maximums. During my time in prison 6 maximum security prisons were built to “house” the influx in violent offenders predicted by the Truth in Sentencing commission, Bill Clinton and all of the tough on crime politicians who were selling mass incarceration as prison reform.
In my 20 years as a prisoner, I witnessed MODOC disintegrate into a system almost totally designed and structured to punish. To refer to a Missouri prison as a Correctional Center is a spit in the face of the average prisoner. Particularly, any “old timer” who was in the system back when the MODOC was in the reform and rehabilitation business. Moreover, oftentimes you hear of the prisoners who’ve assault fellow prisoners, been caught smuggling drugs into the institution, etc., but I assure you, those prisoners do not represent the vast majority of individuals confined inside of Missouri prisons.
Actually, many prisoners in MODOC go months and sometimes years without receiving an infraction for breaking the rules – rules that criminalize a multitude of normal social behaviors. It is my contention that this indiscriminate criminalization of normal social behaviors of prisoners did not occur until the advent of the “get tough on crime” era and the advent of Truth in Sentencing introduced by the 1994 Crime Bill endorsed by President Bill Clinton and Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Evidence of this fact can be found in the Truth in Sentencing report where it clearly indicated that the primary purpose of new legislation was to keep violent prisoners in the system longer. The residual effect of this new legislation and penal philosophy in the Missouri prison system was a departmental policy to implement such (new) penal policies and praxis such as the Parallel Universe program. This program was instituted by MODOC unofficially beginning in the early 1990’s and officially by the year 2000. Parallel Universe is a prison management system modeled after the California Department of Corrections.
When I was incarcerated I use to watch a lot of the prison and pre-trial detention shows and would be baffled at how the prisons on the west coast resembled these in Missouri. We would see certain practices and machinery used on the prisoners in Pelican Bay, San Quentin, etc., and then a few years later, the guards in Missouri would be employing the same gestapo–like practices and weaponry. Then, after the state of Missouri received the funding from the federal government and started constructing prisons, all of the prisons were modeled after the west coast models and made almost identical.
The prisons I am referring to are euphemistically called:
- Potosi Correctional Center*
- Bonne Terre Correctional Center*
- Northeast Correctional Center
- South Central Correctional Center
- Fulton Reception & Diagnostic Correctional Center*
- Southeast Correctional Center*
- Crossroads Correctional Center
- Eastern Reception & Diagnostic Correctional Center*
- Jefferson City Correctional Center*
*Correctional Centers that I served time in
Each of these prisons were built during the latter 1980’s thru the 2000’s with the last of these that was constructed being the Jefferson City Correctional Center, the prison I was finally released from. All of these, with the exception of a select few share these commonalities:
- Designed and operated as maximum security level prisons
- Maintain well over a thousand prisoners
- Surrounded by a barbed wire electronic fencing
- Each are primarily double-man cell prisons with the exception of one housing unit usually designated 1 House that contains the prisons (only) single-man cells. These one-person cells are used to confine prisoners in Supermaxim lock-down and are generally reserved for the most unruly, violent and/or mentally disturbed prisoners.
As a result of our penal policies in this state, particularly, the 85% laws, JLWOP and the draconian sentences we give to First Time Offenders has caused a crisis within our penal system in Missouri. I say this because of the way they prisons are run nowadays. It is not uncommon for non-violent drug offenders, probation and parole violators, individuals serving relatively short prison terms for minor offenses, to be grouped with violent long-term offenders due to overcrowding. Another problem is that prisoner’s classifications are no longer dropping as they near the end of their sentences as they used to before the implementation of the Parallel Universe. Often times individuals are paroled from maximum security prisons without deceleration to lower level security prisons. This leaves individuals unprepared for re-entry into society increasing recidivism. It is my theory, the theory of those that understand the Prison Industrial Complex, that the MODOC administrators have implemented these policies because they are good for business.
At one point you had five different Custody Level Institutions in the state with the lowest level representing the lower “security risk” inmates making there transition back into society and the higher levels representing the “high risk” prisoners that would likely would not be released. Years ago, MODOC made a conscious effort to separate and categorize the prisoners to avoid what I contend is going on today – the criminalization of the the incarcerated.
Any time you mix short-timers with long-timers everyone with any experience in the penal system knows is bad for the rehabilitative process of the individual. Consequently, not only do you place the short-timer in really serious physical danger, but also, it is a proven fact that short-timers who are thrust in these sorts of situations are often forced to defend themselves from becoming “indoctrinated” with the prison and street ethos that oftentimes serves as the principle motivation of a prisoner “re-offending”.
I have witnessed this occur in many instances before when I was incarcerated where an individual enters into the system a “square” and then is thrust into an (unhealthy) environment that he or she shouldn’t be placed in, and a year or two later, the prisoner starts adopting the posture and thinking of the real hardened criminals, oftentimes simply out of a motivation to survive incarceration. And these sort of prisoners who initially entered the system as non-violent drug or property offenders become transformed into hardened criminals simply largely do to the “mis-management” of the MODOC administrators in their haphazard Classification assignments of its prisoners.
Hence, the reality is that when an individual is forced into the wrong environments inside of the Missouri Department of Corrections, the same outcome results as it would if an individual is trust into the wrong environments in society and to a larger extent, the when thrust into certain environments in prison, you just have to do what you have to do. Often times, non-violent offenders become violent in prison due to this; non-drug users are sometimes turned out on drugs in prison with illicit drugs smuggled in by officers and staff; weaker more docile inmates are raped, extorted or worse.
The saddening reality is that the administrators of the Missouri Department of Corrections are aware of this. Sadly, them simply do no care! Their modus operandi is locking individuals up and throwing away the key without any thought of how that person is to return to society upon release.
This is a serious problem and the onus is on the state and the MODOC to do better with is nearly 40,000 prisoners. If not, then further criminalization of the incarcerated is all Missourians can expect from the incarceration of its citizens.
By Anthony Williams, Founder & Director, MO PAC, LLC