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The Municipal Correctional Institution is falling apart, but shutting it down might be destructive



Brenda has the weathered features of a woman who has worked Independence Avenue, selling her body for a few bucks and dulling her crack high with a bottle of alcohol. Sitting at a long table at the city jail, she twists her arms in front of her and squirms in her seat like a fifth-grader.

Her tired eyes pick up the color of the faded-green jumpsuit, but her gaze doesn't track the conversation as she answers questions. Her rust-colored hair, pulled back in a ponytail, flops from side to side as she puts an ear to one shoulder as if trying to keep warm.

Her top teeth are missing, and a rasp in her voice forces dry little coughs. "My uncle's been giving me cigarettes since I was little," she says. "And crack."

Her uncle is one of the reasons that the Municipal Correctional Institution has become a second home for the 33-year-old. This deteriorating complex houses the low-level offenders who violate city ordinances. The most common charges are possession of drug paraphernalia and traffic and probation violations. The average stay for sentenced inmates is roughly two months.

Brenda is serving a 180-day sentence for prostitution and property damage. "But I've been here a lot," she says with an odd smile. "Too many times to count."

She tells her story in bursts, her unsteady voice tripping through the episodes out of order: She grew up in Northeast Kansas City. Her mother was an alcoholic. An uncle was violent with her. By age 12, she was on the street and into drugs and prostitution. She got kicked out of high school for smacking a teacher in the back of the head with a book.

"I can't do authority," she says.

Years later, she married and had a daughter. Her mother and her sister won't let her go home, so she's not able to see her father. "He's dying of lung cancer and stays in bed most of the time," she says. "My brother tells me how he's doing."

She grabs a Kleenex from the table. As she sobs quietly, women walk out of a group meeting in an adjacent room. One inmate walks over to Brenda and holds out a stack of chocolate cookies wrapped in a napkin.

"Oh, my God," Brenda says. "You thought of me."

"Why you crying?" the woman asks.

"Just thinking about my dad, that's all," Brenda says.

But she seems to forget her despair, grinning as she eats the cookie.

Nancy Leazer, MCI's superintendent, looks on from the other side of the table. Brenda is like many of the inmates at the jail. As much as 90 percent of the population arrives at the facility dependent on drugs or alcohol. More than 85 percent of the inmates have no stable home. Between 50 percent and 60 percent of them suffer from some form of mental illness.

Most of the inmates at MCI are from the city's poorest districts, lucky to get a Legal Aid attorney, if any lawyer at all. Most wouldn't be sabotaging their probation or engaging in prostitution if they weren't feeding a drug or alcohol addiction, stuck in a cycle of crime that makes their faces so familiar here.

For people such as Brenda, the jail offers stability. Being here makes her hopeful.

"I've got my friends at my side," she says. "These people help me. I even call them up and talk to them when I'm not here."

But this place will likely be closed before Brenda is released.

The municipal jail is out of sight for most Kansas City residents. The low-slung complex is nine miles east of downtown, past industrial warehouses and up a winding road where the dusty shoulders are often heaped with illegally dumped furniture and trash. The modest brick buildings, with their generous windows, might be mistaken for a school campus if it not for the high fence tipped with barbed wire.

The rules of entry, posted on a disintegrating piece of paper fastened to the chain-link fence, have been smeared nearly illegible by rain. The fence is so weathered that even frequent guests who push the little black button are startled by the violent jerk and rattle as the gate slides open.

In the small lobby, where an attendant sits behind thick glass, candy wrappers remain crumpled on the concrete floor, and rust-colored water stains darken the white ceiling tiles. A man wearing a plastic hospital bracelet sits in a chair, his mouth signaling nervousness with a subtle clicking noise.

"I'm just resting," he says as officers pass through the lobby. They seem to know him.

Superintendent Leazer heaves open the beige-painted steel door that separates this room from the minimum-security facility. On the other side, guards prepare for their shifts, and on-duty personnel watch the inmates on monitors. There's no metal detector.

A compact woman who moves and talks with punctuated determination, Leazer exudes the welcoming authority of a tough football coach. If few cities run their own jails anymore, even fewer institutions are run by people like Leazer.

Growing up in Iowa, she was drawn to politics. While a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, she worked as an aide to Wisconsin Legislator Mary Lou Munts. In 1983, Leazer moved to municipal government, working for Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner. At that post, she helped create a drop-in center for homeless schizophrenics. She came to believe that government's primary role is to act as a safety net for society's most vulnerable.

A desire to leave Wisconsin brought her to Kansas City in 1990, looking for a different career path. When she took over MCI in 1995, Leazer inherited a 24-year-old facility that was already starting to fall apart. By then, the number of studies calling for the jail's closure had already started to pile up.

In 1989, the National Center for State Courts reported that MCI's design was so flawed, and its security so poor, that 20 inmates a week were simply walking away from the facility. In 1993, the city auditor concluded that the jail was in need of "serious repair." Summing up a decade's worth of grim assessments, the public-facility consulting firm Carter Goble Lee concluded in 2005 that "the facility does not currently provide a safe and secure environment."

In her most recent assessment, in early 2008, Leazer reported that half of the closed-circuit cameras don't work anymore. Wiring in the perimeter alarm system and in the dormitories is starting to fail. Basic items such as furnaces and sewer lines have exceeded their life expectancy by more than a decade.

Limited funding from the city has made it nearly impossible to catch up. Right now, the city estimates that it would take $3.4 million to make the most crucial repairs. Last year, Leazer's entire budget was $4.7 million — a small fraction of the city's public-safety budget. Instead of hiring the 45 correctional officers Leazer deemed necessary, she had to make do with 38. In order to keep three shifts staffed — sometimes at a ratio of one officer to 40 inmates — MCI exceeded its overtime budget by $100,000.

Walking the grounds, Leazer points to small booths around the perimeter. Guards should stand watch there, she says, but city funding doesn't allow it. As she passes the men's dormitory, several inmates in orange jumpsuits bang on the windows and move their hands over their heads. Leazer interprets the gesture: They haven't been able to get haircuts because she doesn't have enough staff to guard the gymnasium during such a hygiene session.

Staff shortfalls limit prisoners' recreational time, increasing tension among inmates. Today, the men not crowding the window are perched on rounded plastic bunks that look like worn-down benches at a Greyhound station. The thin mattresses are covered with frayed blankets and jail-issued denim jackets. Past a set of brown bars with countless initials and names carved into the chipped paint, down a corridor as dark and narrow as a submarine's interior, men too ill or unruly to live with the rest of the population are housed in isolation cells.

When Richard Stevens, the assistant superintendent, started work at MCI in 1977, violence was routine. "We've got 12 isolation cells for disciplinary problems and if, when you left, they weren't full, you didn't do your job," he says. "And if there was a problem and an officer went to the hospital, there better be an inmate going to the hospital, too."

But that culture has changed, Stevens says. Since 2001, the officers have been trained in tactics to deal with difficult inmates in a nonconfrontational manner. As Leazer and Stevens chat in the superintendent's office, they pause to wave at a woman with a birthday cake, child in tow, walking past the window. Leazer says more than 30 organizations — from church groups to volunteers reading plays with the female inmates — visit the jail on a regular basis.

"This was a secret place," Stevens says of his early days at MCI. "Not a secret location, but people didn't know anything about the jail."

Leazer changed that — and it has made shuttering this crumbling facility far more complicated.

When Michael Couch was booked into MCI in May 2007, his hair was covered in white latex paint. His explanation: Harry Potter told him to do it.

Homeless from an early age and drug dependent for many years, the 32-year-old wasn't a new face to the staff at MCI. He'd been there more than two dozen times before, on charges including disturbing the peace and assault.

He would agitate the inmates in the middle of the night by flushing the toilets over and over. When he was sequestered in an isolation cell, he rarely wore the jail-issued gown. For months, he sat naked in a 6-foot-by-6-foot cell, refusing MCI staff members' attempts to treat him.

The staff, with backing from area health-care professionals, tried to place Couch in a mental-health facility during a two-year confinement that started in 2004. The state refused to admit him. After his stay was extended for spitting on a judge and correctional officers, Couch was released in August 2006. But the cycle continued. The following spring, he shattered the window of a Family Dollar store near Linwood and Troost. According to the police report, Couch claimed: "A weed-smoking bitch almost hit me with the ice-cream truck, so I threw a brick at the truck and the store."

Leazer says Couch's case marked a turning point at MCI.

"He demonstrated to us how sick people are," she says. In 2001, the Resource Development Institute, a local consulting firm, began a study of the MCI population. In a report published in 2006, it determined that 50 percent of MCI's inmates reported symptoms of mental illness; 38 percent had both mental-health and addiction problems.

Bruce Eddy, executive director of the Jackson County Mental Health Fund, says the MCI population is particularly difficult. Because the majority of those incarcerated at MCI come from the city's poorest zip codes, they are the least likely to get assistance. "These are people who are very difficult to get into mental-health and drug-treatment services, but they need them very badly," Eddy says. "When they're in jail, society has an opportunity to intervene with them. If we don't do that, they'll leave jail, go back to their neighborhoods and erode the quality of life with petty crimes."

Leazer is more blunt: "It's a lot easier to talk to somebody here when they're clean than when they're out at 27th and Prospect and they're high," she says.

So she has made it a priority to bring outside resources into the jail setting. In the past five years, MCI has helped attract private funding and establish special courts to send addicted offenders to treatment rather than incarcerating them. In 2006, Leazer got monies from the Mental Health Fund to bring in a full-time mental-health professional to counsel the inmates. A psychiatrist also meets with inmates twice a week.

Most recently, Leazer and dozens of advocates and attorneys created what they think will be a national model: a program combining mental-health treatment and post-incarceration services, such as housing. In November, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City earmarked $900,000 for the program called Bridges.

Milling around their bunks in the women's dorm at MCI, female inmates take turns curling each other's hair or watching soap operas on an old TV. They're contrite but unabashed in talking about their crimes.

"I get high and drive," says a woman with a slender face. She already had strikes against her license when she was pulled over while high and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.

"I get to doing meth and then I steal," says another woman with black-rimmed glasses. She was stoned when she got caught shoplifting underwear, cologne and a belt for her boyfriend from a Wal-Mart.

On a recent Monday afternoon, nine women sit around a table watching Cadillac Records in a darkened, cinder-block classroom. The walls are covered in butcher paper, on which group leaders have written definitions for words such as neurosis, and women have scrawled the names of their children and loved ones in the middle of a bubble labeled "Safe World."

Today the women are watching a movie to celebrate the second anniversary of the ME-FIRST program, which targets the underlying causes of addiction. More than 300 women have completed the class. The transformation isn't spontaneous, says Preston Washington, a counselor with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, who convenes the group. "There's no change until they come to grips with who they are," he says. "As one woman expressed, in her words, 'I'm a 10-dollar whore.' I knew then she was ready to make some changes."

On Tuesday afternoon, six men sit around the same table for a mental-health group. Michael Barnett, from Truman Behavioral Health, counsels the inmates, talking them through the challenges they face in their lives.

A 20-year-old inmate with tattoos on his forearms, who was sentenced on a trespassing charge, says Barnett helps them vent. "He got me meds," he says. "It's helping me sleep better. And he let me talk to the doctor."

A few minutes after the men's group breaks up, Barnett meets one of the correctional captains in the corridor.

"I finished that affidavit for M.H.," Barnett says. "He got 120 days."

The captain cringes and sighs, as though he's hearing about his own kid. Even by initials, they immediately know the inmate in question.

On a cloudy Wednesday morning, Leazer waits in City Council chambers, nervously clicking the top of a black pen. It's a few minutes before the start of a committee meeting that will take the first vote in a process likely to end the city jail.

Clusters of men in suits saunter through the heavy doors. Officials from the city and Jackson County shake hands and chat in tight circles. Leazer, in a neat navy-blue blazer, surveys the scene with a forced, anxious smile. An acquaintance who slips into the row behind her asks Leazer how's she's doing.

"Well, I haven't been sleeping well," she says with a laugh.

The fate of the city jail has been keeping Councilwoman Cathy Jolly up late, too. A year ago, she says, she was fighting to keep Leazer in business. The council was considering private contractors able to warehouse city inmates at a far cheaper rate. Jolly called such a plan a dangerous idea that, she said, would "outsource public safety."

"This population is coming back to the community very soon," she tells The Pitch. "Their average stay is 62 days. It matters that they get the treatment they need because they're coming back to be our neighbors, sitting next to us at the movies and in the restaurants."

So for the past year, Jolly has been working with Jackson County on a regional jail proposal to house city and state inmates within the same complex. The agreement would give Jackson County $1.4 million in 2009 to rehab an unused annex next to the Jackson County Detention Center downtown. The majority of city inmates would be transferred there. Next year, Kansas City would add $600,000 to cover security technology, including cameras and computer systems. To house and provide basic care to the inmates, Jackson County would charge Kansas City $3.1 million annually.

As Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders explains at the committee hearing, a regional jail would save money by uniting contracts, including those for food and medical services, in one location. Keeping inmates next door to the courthouse would eliminate the need for motorized transportation to and from hearings. It would allow Kansas City police to close the processing center at its downtown headquarters and to book detainees directly into the jail across the street. And the new jail, Sanders adds, would have plenty of meeting space for community groups to continue their outreach and provide room for inmates to receive mental-health services.

Jolly, facing an audience of county officials and MCI advocates, says she recognizes the model programs at the city jail. "A lot of work went into making MCI what it is, and we want to continue that," she says. "But we have an $85 million shortfall in our budget that's very real. Keeping MCI open is not an option."

But it's not as easy as moving a few puzzle pieces.

Ken Conlee, director of the Jackson County Detention Center, answers questions about the new regional jail in a curt tone. He brushes aside concerns about the continuation of mental-health services. Both MCI and the JCDC are funded by the Mental Health Fund, he explains. "In essence, it's the same thing," he tells The Pitch.

Not true, says Bruce Eddy, director of the Mental Health Fund. "There are some big differences. For JCDC, it's a much more correctional mental-health-care model, so it's a lot more focused on inmate and staff safety. They really don't have a systematic process assessing whether inmates are mentally ill."

MCI employees and volunteers step to the microphone, raising their own concerns.

One woman denounces the lack of public input in the regional decision; several in the audience applaud. Jolly shoots back that everybody has had ample time to come to the table with their ideas. A new jail, several advocates respond, must maintain MCI's level of service. Jolly says an advisory committee will make sure that transition happens.

One MCI volunteer points out that some programs, such as a vegetable garden for the female offenders, won't be possible at a downtown facility with no green space.

"We're facing taking police officers off the street," Jolly says, her patience starting to wear. "Gardens are great, but we need police officers on the street."

One correctional officer offers a suggestion: Because there's already extra bed space and plenty of room on MCI's 2,200 acres, why doesn't Kansas City fix up MCI and subsidize the operation by bringing in regional and federal inmates?

"Thank you," Jolly says before moving on. She insists that there are only two options: Jackson County or privatization. Right now, there are no firm plans for the MCI complex.

During the three-hour meeting, Leazer doesn't testify. She sits with the same apprehensive half-smile on her face as Jolly's committee votes unanimously to shut down MCI. The next day, the full council gives Jolly the go-ahead to finalize the agreement with Jackson County. Once that's done, the measure will require one more vote from the City Council.

Then the race will be on to get the inmates out of MCI by May 1.

The vegetable garden at MCI is just four rectangles of dirt, perhaps 20 feet long, located a few yards from a basketball court and an aging picnic table. But Leazer still shows it off in the middle of winter.

Joanne Katz, a professor of criminal justice at Missouri Western State University, worked with Leazer to establish the garden. Last summer, they picked tomatoes, melons and dill. Gardening enthusiasts who had never been in a jail, Katz says, felt safe at MCI. They got to know the female inmates as people, not criminals.

Having visited numerous correctional facilities, Katz is frustrated that the city would close this one. "It's a very unusual place with a very committed staff," she says. "The city is just not thinking very prudently about this. They're regarding these people as objects that can be put one place or another."

Even if the county and city inmates are kept apart, Eddy worries that the culture at the regional jail won't differentiate between misdemeanor convictions and violent offenders. "How hard is it going to be to have physical access to people?" Eddy asks. "Is the atmosphere going to be one that's conducive to rehabilitation? At JCDC, it's correctional. Rehabilitation is not the focus. Safety is the focus."

That might hinder community groups such as Veronica’s Voice, a transition program for former prostitutes. Caroline Germann, the group's outreach coordinator, says she and other women who have worked in the sex trade meet regularly with the female inmates at MCI, where prostitution is a common charge. They usually visit the jail on Tuesdays, but MCI is flexible about letting them in without an appointment. "But Jackson County is not a facility that's as accessible to get in and do programming," Germann says.

The move to Jackson County could leave private money on the table, too. Jennifer Sykes, a spokeswoman for the Health Care Foundation says the Bridges grant was based on the resources available at MCI. "We need to hear more from them about how they're able to provide these services. We're kind of on hold with that grant right now."

Diana Turner, who was hired to direct the Bridges grant after working 15 years at the Missouri Department of Corrections, works at a desk down the hall from the women's dormitory at MCI. At the top of her cubicle, she has posted a little placard for the passing inmates: "Homeless? Talk to me." But now that the grant is in doubt, she's not sure that the past few months spent lining up outside partners to find inmates housing and counseling services will amount to anything.

"The timing is wretched," she says.

Brenda, who is serving time for prostitution and property damage, says the reason she couldn't make it on probation was because she couldn't find an apartment. She hopes that the resources at MCI — people like Turner — will help her get settled once she finishes her sentence. It should be easier, now that she hasn't smoked crack in months.

"I've been off drugs for 97 days," she says with the pride of a student with a straight-A report card, "98 today."

Later in the afternoon, she'll start her new job: cleaning up the dorms. If she stays committed to the work, she could get out before her May release date.

If not, she may be on the cleaning crew that prepares the decades-old institution for closure. The homemade prayer flags strung up in the recreation room will have to be taken down. The puzzles spread out on the floor of the women's dormitory will need to be boxed.

If any tomato plants survive the winter and push through the dirt this summer, there won't be anyone to pick the fruit.

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