Tornado damages old Missouri State Penitentiary

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The old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was damaged by a tornado on May 22. 

JEFFERSON CITY — An abandoned prison sits on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River north of the state’s capital city.

Shuttered in 2004, the Central Missouri Correctional Center is surrounded by a security fence topped with razor wire that keeps people out nowadays, rather than in.

In Cameron, to the west, another abandoned prison awaits a decision on what will happen to it after it was shuttered in 2019 due to a drop in the number of prison inmates and the scarcity of people wanting to work in prisons in the region.

The empty facilities have become a concern for at least one Missouri lawmaker, who said the state should have a better plan to either sell or repurpose state-owned real estate so the unused facilities don’t become an eyesore.

“We should have a plan for future use. Or we should have a plan for liquidation,” said Rep. Randy Railsback, R-Hamilton.

Under legislation filed by Railsback and heard in a House committee Tuesday, a task force would be established to review surplus property and how much it is costing to keep it in its “mothball” state.

At the abandoned Central Missouri Correctional Center, the state has converted a farm portion of the facility into a conservation area in the bottomlands of the Missouri River valley.

Up top, however, a mix of prison buildings — from cellblocks to cafeterias — sit empty. Some graffiti has appeared on the walls, but the facility remains mostly intact.

At the Crossroads Correctional Center, Railsback praised plans by Gov. Mike Parson to convert a portion of the facility into a training center for prison guards.

But even that plan is slow in coming.

Parson asked for more than $650,000 last year to start the training grounds, but the plan has not gotten off the ground, said Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann.

Even if the facility does begin operating, Railsback said there are other potential uses for the sprawling site.

“It has lots of unused buildings,” Railsback told members of the House Corrections and Public Institutions Committee.

Among potential uses under consideration is a regional county jail or as a site to film prison scenes.

“We need to do something,” Railsback said. “You’re not going to change a prison into a motel.”

Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, expressed support for the idea, saying his hometown continues to grapple with the legacy of the historic Missouri State Penitentiary just blocks from the Capitol.

The massive old prison was shuttered in 2004 and parts of it are used for tours. But, after a 2019 tornado, some of the remaining buildings sit unrepaired.

Efforts by Jefferson City officials to develop the area around the old prison have not yielded dividends yet.

Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Desloge, said the task force could help the administration get rid of unused properties.

“We’re probably burning through tax dollars that could be used for other purposes,” Henderson said.

The task force would be composed of members of the House and Senate and representatives from the governor’s office.

The panel would have to submit a plan by September 2023 outlining what should be done with each property, as well as funding recommendations.

The legislation is House Bill 1757.

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