Some Missouri incarcerated run their own corner of the prison
From St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
BOWLING GREEN, Mo. — The warden’s office view is very good here at Northeast Correctional Center. From his window, he can see much of the sprawling state prison that’s home to about 1,550 inmates and surrounded by rolling fields.
That doesn’t mean it’s pretty.
On a recent mid-morning from his roost, the clear sun revealed overwhelming hues of gray from down below. Spools of concertina wire. Layers of fencing, concrete and metal. Even the prisoner uniforms.
An exception — a notable touch of color — came from the far-off corner of campus, where the Missouri prison system has been turned on its head. Older men milled around as they pleased, dressed in maroon “free world” shirts. Though each of the inmates carried convictions for long-ago heinous crimes, ranging from fatal shooting to kidnapping to strangulation, today they don’t even have correctional officers in their housing unit.
“In a sense, they run it,” said Warden Clay Stanton.
The maroon shirts, he explained, are part of a new program called Dynamo that offers a tremendous amount of freedom to inmates who have shown many years — sometimes decades — of good behavior behind bars. Based off a prison model in Norway that prioritizes reintegration to society, staff handpicked 14 longtimers in their 50s, 60s and 70s to lay the Dynamo foundation with the goal of growing from there.
It’s highly unusual for many reasons. Dynamo inmates have keys to their housing unit and yard, which they can access at any hour and are responsible for cutting the grass. They have open movement to food service, jobs, library, recreation and canteen. They have access to a day room with a soft sofa, large television, washer and dryer, refrigerator, ice machine, plants and an aquarium to help alleviate stress
Most unusual of all, inmates have their own cells, which they can paint the color of their choosing — and are expected to clean. They are also supposed to keep track of their own doctor appointments and so on.
“We took them out of a structured environment and put them in a responsible environment,” said Stanton. “They are now responsible for all aspects of upkeep of the place.”
So far, he said, results have been “amazing,” including: Zero fights and no drugs, overdoses or violations.
Dynamo only serves a small group of inmates, but the warden said the positive vibes also lower the intensity of the whole prison, which is better and safer for staff. Turnover is always a challenge. Of 44 graduates from a boot camp for new hires here in 2019, the subject of a Post-Dispatch story, only one fourth remain employed by the Missouri Department of Corrections. About 450 people work at Northeast Correctional Center. Stanton said they are down about 100 employees.
“It’s all about respect,” Stanton said of Dynamo. “It’s brought the camp up tremendously.”
‘Come on in’
Mike Whitfield was one of the first to introduce himself during a tour of the housing unit. At 59, he’s among the youngest in the program. Short, stocky, energetic, his friendly demeanor seemed more suited for being a church greeter than somebody with a murder conviction from St. Louis.
“Spend some time in prison, you are going to have a big change of heart,” Whitfield said. He’s had three decades of prison experience and still doesn’t have a date set with the parole board. Maybe, he said, 2046 will be the year. For now, he’s moving forward.
“Being institutionalized, that’s not my cup of tea,” he said. “I am always thinking there’s a chance to get home.”
Like many others in prison, he has a regular job inside the walls. He drives a forklift. He also goes to the gym a couple times a day and cleans the floors at Dynamo. He’s been in incentive-based “honor” programs before, but he said this one in particular offers the best “peace of mind.”
“It’s a great experience,” Whitfield said, “for us all.”
Chuck O’Howell, 62, of Cape Girardeau, has spent almost his entire adult life in prison for rape.
“This is like a little neighborhood,” he said. “We look out for each other. I like to say we leave prison at the gate.”
Individual names on the cell doors resemble mailboxes on a cul-de-sac.
“This is my room,” said Khelby Calmese, 59, in prison since the mid-1990s for the gang-related killing of a teenager in north St. Louis. “Come on in.”
Just past the toilet, a St. Louis Rams blanket covered a narrow bed. He’d chosen light blue paint for the walls. He liked having his own DVD player and a collection of books that ranged from the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” to the Bible.
“Look at this place,” he said of Dynamo. “It’s sent from God. It gives us a second chance at life. We get to be who we were meant to be. To have this much freedom we never had, we won’t do anything to lose it. No. No.”
The single cell, 8 feet by 12 feet, is the biggest perk.
“One of the worst things about prison is having to be in a cell with another man,” said Jeffrey Pollard, 65, a sex offender also accused in 1984 of holding the Sumner High School principal hostage to talk about God. “You live in the bathroom.”
They don’t lock their cell doors at Dynamo. Roger R. Nolan, 76, who has been in prison since the early 1980s for a mid-Missouri murder, said thieves would rob you blind if you did that in general population.
“We are trying to make it a community where you can trust everybody,” said Nolan, leaning on a walker. “It’s one of the criteria.”
Convicts. Inmates. Offenders. Residents. Prison lingo has been evolving amid renewed efforts to untie knots that make the United States the most incarcerated country in the developed world.
Some view Norway as a beacon of hope. There, being pulled out of society is punishment enough. Prison is the place to rebuild and prepare for reentering society.