The new jail west of Springfield drew concern from Greene County’s presiding commissioner, but it isn’t because of what’s happening inside the walls.
The $150 million, 325,000-square foot jail complex sits on 23 acres of land south of the Springfield-Branson National Airport on West Division Street. The somewhat out-of-the way location puts inmates about six miles away from the center of Springfield when they are released.
At a meeting in early July, Commissioner Bob Dixon expressed his concern with what happens on the roads that go by the jail, West Division Street, or State Route EE, and Haseltine Road.
“I’m just worried,” Dixon said. “It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Now, the county commissioners want the state to build sidewalks, and the Greene County sheriff is offering taxicab vouchers to certain inmates upon their release.
Greene County Assistant Highway Department Administrator Adam Humphrey, professional engineer, explained that foot traffic has drawn concern from the Ozarks Transportation Organization. The OTO sets priorities and writes regional transportation plans used to guide federal and state funding for roads, bridges, highways and trails.
“One of the items that had come up in the recent board of directors meeting had to do with the possibility of programming a pedestrian improvement project around the new Greene County Jail site,” Humphrey said.
Some issues anticipated
Greene County Director of Facilities Kevin Barnes told the commission the people who own property around the new jail were worried about an increase in pedestrian traffic before it opened in May.
“I had met with all of the neighbors ahead of time to try to make sure they understood we were going to be good neighbors, and give them an idea of how the facility operated,” Barnes said. “One of the concerns we had — and one of the concerns they had — was what inmates would do when they’re released. Where they would go; how they would behave.”
Barnes said he discussed bus accessibility with staff members at City Utilities, which operates the Springfield city bus system and has a stop about half a mile from the jail at Alliance Avenue and Division Street.
“They have a route that goes out to Alliance,” Barnes said. “How can we include this as a stop? And it was just going to be logistically and financially infeasible for them to do that.”
Economically, paying to change the bus route and paying for taxis for certain inmates led to similar financial figures.
“When we were looking at the dollar amounts it would take to run a bus route, we realized we could afford a lot of cab fares for that,” Barnes said. “We didn’t have any idea of what the usage would be.”
To take the bus, an inmate would likely need to already have a bus pass, or have a working cell phone at the time they are released from jail. All cash is taken away from inmates upon their booking in the Greene County Jail. Money is converted to an electronic pay card, and city buses only accept cash or bus passes when a passenger buys a fare on the bus.
Sheriff’s office announces cab vouchers
On July 9, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office announced via its Facebook page that it would give certain inmates vouchers for taxi rides upon their release from jail.
“We reached out to some of the local companies, and Yellow Cab, in particular, was interested in helping us temporarily until we could get some information on how much that service would be needed,” Maj. Royce Denny told the county commissioners at a meeting on July 7.
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There are some stipulations. To qualify for a cab ride into Springfield, an inmate must enter the jail with less than $20 on their person, and they must be unable to otherwise arrange a ride using phones in the jail lobby or with their personal cell phones.
“We’re going to have some preset destinations that Yellow Cab will take them to, and then we’re going to try to keep track of how many rides that we have in a week or a month period of time, so we can determine if there is a real need for it,” Denny said. “I think there is a certain amount of need, but we’ll find out in the future how much that need is.”
The Greene County Sheriff’s Office published a list of destinations on its Facebook Page. They include the CU bus transfer station, the Greyhound Bus station on West Chestnut Expressway, Salvation Army, Harbor House, The Kitchen, the Burrell Behavioral Health Rapid Access unit, the O’Reilly Center for Hope, Victory Mission, Veterans Coming Home, Cox Medical Center North, Mercy Springfield’s main hospital, the Greene County Courthouse, Springfield Municipal Court, and Rare Breed.
“Hopefully, they won’t need any medical attention, but if they do, they can take it to the hospital and places like that, just so that they can get back into the city safely,” Denny said.
Denny said the sheriff’s office will use the coming weeks to gather information and eventually put the released inmate transportation contract out to bid for other cab companies, “once we have some information together.”
Visitation policy has unintended result
While people do walk east from the jail into Springfield upon their release, Dixon thinks more pedestrian safety concerns come about when inmates’ family members walk to and from the jail for visits.
“It’s not people being released from the jail, it’s people going to visit the jail,” Dixon said. “I don’t know that they’ll ride the bus if it’s provided. What the problem is is the businesses out there are telling us that they’re having to spend money to improve their security because people are just coming through there who are walking to the jail to visit somebody, and they’re just taking up space in their lobby, or they’re harassing the people because it’s too far to walk.”
According to City Utilities’ map of nearby bus routes, the nearest bus stop to the jail is at the intersection of Alliance Avenue and Division Street, about a half-mile walk from the jail entrance.
According to the visitation policy published on the Greene County Sheriff’s Office website, each inmate is allowed three visits per week for free. Each visit is a maximum of 25 minutes. Visits are held via video conferencing.
“Two of the visits must be conducted in the Greene County Jail Lobby, and one can be done remotely,” the policy reads. “All other visit time will be at a cost determined by the current provider. Additional video visit time is allowed which is determined by the funds available to the inmate.”
Additional virtual visitation time may be purchased, but two-thirds of the free visits must be done from the kiosks in the jail lobby.
It is each inmate’s responsibility to inform family members of the visitation policies, and violating the policies may result in loss of visitation privileges.
Commissioner wants wider road and sidewalks
While the cabs provide a partial solution, Dixon wants the Missouri Department of Transportation to fund improvements for State Route EE.
“The end deal is we need to have the state widen that road and put sidewalks on it; that’s what we really need,” Dixon said. “We have raised the issue of sidewalks and the widening of EE to the Ozarks Transportation Organization as a needed priority in the county, so we’ll continue to try to draw attention in that direction.”
Humphrey said improvements to State Route EE will need to come from MoDOT, because even though Greene County owns the jail property, it does not maintain control of the road.
“I think it would be very difficult for us to serve as a project sponsor because we have no jurisdictional authority over any of the roads on which the project would be built. It would either be on MoDOT or city of Springfield right of way,” Humphrey said.
Such a project also raises some logistical problems.
“We were trying to say, ‘Okay, if we were going to build a sidewalk, where would you run it?’ because the city doesn’t have connection, the state doesn’t have connection,” Humphrey said. “The most direct route would be along Haseltine, maybe, to get to Chestnut.”
Sending people toward Chestnut Expressway carries the danger of sending discharged inmates into the new Betty and Bobby Allison Sports Town. By court order, some persons awaiting trial or sentencing are not supposed to be near children.
“If you take them down Division, the bridge over I-44 isn’t wide enough to carry pedestrians,” Humphrey said. “And then there’s no sidewalk, of course, between Division and Haseltine, either, and so there’s no good route.”
“It’s a real challenge,” Dixon said.
Background on the jail
The new jail had 1,242 inmate beds on the day it opened, up from about 990 beds at the old jail.
The new sheriff’s office is also part of the new facility, and it takes up 62,000 square feet. A separate building for training, evidence storage and patrol vehicle outfitting and maintenance is also on-site at the new campus.
In November 2017, voters in Greene County approved a ½-cent sales tax increase that was initially projected to generate more than $25 million per year. The list of projects that the Greene County Commission of 2017 pledged included jail expansion, hiring of new jail staff members, operating expenses for the jail, additional operating expenses in the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, emergency radio system improvements, courthouse renovations, mental health programs and more.
The new jail is divided into 20 different housing pods, with inmate capacities ranging from 24-56 inmates in a pod. The new jail will also have 16 rooms for court appearances by video teleconferencing, which means inmates will generally not leave the jail in order to make court appearances in downtown Springfield.
The majority of the inmates in the Greene County Jail are being held for pretrial court proceedings, and have not been convicted and sentenced.