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Tent Life Not a Drag for Prisoners

October 02, 1997
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - You would think being forced to live in a tent would be a drag. But when the alternative is behind iron bars or in a Texas jail, a tent begins to appear a bit more attractive.

Douglas Flowers and Wendell Henley have been serving time for the state in tents, and both say they would rather be housed there than any other facility the Corrections Department has to offer.

Compared to other facilities, "it's like a little resort," Flowers said.

Among other efforts over the past several years, Missouri has reshuffled prisoners, fit them into gymnasiums, and (temporarily) sent them to Texas -- all to deal with overcrowding while new prisons are being built.

The Corrections Department regards the tent program as one of its more successful efforts.

"We've proven prisoners can stay in tents," said Tim Kniest, spokesman for the department.

Flowers, 33, from Maryville, and Henley, 30, from St. Louis, are being housed in the tents at the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center.

Flowers, serving time for a felony stealing charge, has been there for over three months. Henley, imprisoned for a drug charge, has been there for more than a month after being released from rehabilitation treatment.

Both prisoners favor the tents, which the state began using in the summer of 1995, over other housing facilities the department has kept them in.

"As far as the space, it's a nice space. The heating and everything is just fine," Henley said. "I think the tents are a little better than a closed cell ... You don't feel like you're being locked up."

The center at Fulton has three tents able to house 50 prisoners each, and a fourth tent with restrooms, sinks, and showers.

These are not your run-of-the-mill tents.

The restrooms are "like the kind you have at home," and the showers get hot or cold water with "good water pressure," according to Henley.

All tents are climate-controlled with fans or heaters, and each housing tent has two telephones.

"They have televisions in each tent, books to read. It's an all-around nice place to live. I wouldn't mind just going in and doing my whole time there," said Flowers. "It takes tension off you."

However, it is unlikely Flowers will spend his whole time there. The prisoners said the tent population is constantly turning over -- few have stayed there longer than a few months.

"Monday through Friday, it's rotational," said Henley. "It's steady flowing."

Brian Goeke, the superintendent for the Fulton center, said only low-custody inmates, who will be released sooner than most others, are chosen to live in the tents.

He said the tents are staffed with sufficient security, and the only misconduct problems have been a few minor scuffles between prisoners.

"If they get in a fight, they immediately lose placement in the tents. They're aware that being in there is kind of a privilege...They're pretty well selectively assigned out there. They look at them to make sure they don't have any escape history," Goeke said.

He estimated the cost of the tents at approximately $150,000, excluding the plumbing and pads the tents rest upon. In comparison, Kniest estimated the cost of the new prisons to be completed over the next three years at more than $483 million.