Webster County Justice Center Featured in The Missouri Sheriff Magazine

Webster County

A Better Idea Forges The Way for Progress

Webster County has needed a new jail for a very long time. The current jail was built in the 1930s when the county was a lightly populated farming community. After World War II when the American love affair with cars and highway travel blossomed, Interstate 44 and the proximity of the growing city of Springfield began to change the landscape. By the late 1950’s there was an acknowledged need for a new jail. What there was not was public interest in the taxes that are needed to build one.

Fiscal conservatism runs deep in rural Missouri. If a tractor will run it will be used no matter its age or dents and bends. Jails tend to be thought of in the same way. Those who are not in them, or trying to keep some level of cleanliness, safety and order in them, don’t give jails much thought. Make it work. Keep it running. Do with what you have.

Of course sheriffs, deputies and county leaders knew the truth. A deteriorating, overcrowded jail is a hazard and a legal liability. They saw the inside of the place and knew the need. Over the decades there were numerous moves to raise taxes to fund a new jail. All failed. By 2005 prudent county commissioners had seen the need and agreed to save each year to a fund for a new jail. But it was never going to be enough.

Then a new sheriff rode into town. With a better idea.

Sheriff Roye Cole is a lifelong lawman at heart. At 16 he convinced then Rogersville police chief and Cole mentor Bob Paudert to let him join a police cadet program. At 20 he was working security at Drury College in Springfield, headed toward a degree in psychology and criminology. At 21 he was a volunteer reserve officer for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. After graduation he went home to Webster County as a juvenile officer. In third-class counties like Webster the juvenile officer handles a lot of court cases directly, giving Cole insight into the court system.

In 2008 Cole was elected Webster County Sheriff and inherited the 1930s jail and all the problems that went with it. That included three failed attempts to pass a tax to fund a solution to those problems.

Cole says an incident while on a trip to China solidified his determination to get something done.

“I was working on my master’s degree in business and went on a study tour to Beijing. While I was there a college kid got in some kind of trouble and ended up in jail. I was asked as a law enforcement guy to see if I could find out what was going on,” Cole said. “In the course of that I went to the jail where he was being held. Everything I envisioned about a Chinese jail was wrong. It was nicer than mine. It was more humane than mine. It was a modern jail. It hurt my pride as an American. I committed to doing something about my jail.”

Webster County

HMN Architects of Overland Park, Kansas is the architect on the project, with Sedalia-based Septagon Construction serving as the construction manager. Sheriff Cole’s family regularly visits the construction site. Sheriff Roye Cole stands in his office for the first time.

Back home he started rolling the rock up the hill. Along the way he developed a strategy that should become the model for sheriffs across Missouri. Instead of getting a drawing of a fancy new building and pointing to that as the goal, he started a campaign to show the community the horror of a 90-year old jail daily crammed with three times the inmates it was built to hold. He opened the jail for tours during the annual Fourth of July Parade, a huge event that draws big crowds. The condition of the jail got people’s attention.

“I opened the jail to the public. I wanted them to see just how horrible it is. Nobody wants to baby prisoners but at the same time there is a point at which it just isn’t right,” Cole said. He never had a picture of a gleaming new building. He had a daily example of a jail so overcrowded, so antiquated that people came to see the problem and the need, not a building.

Cole and the county commission began hammering out the specifics of a new jail and a tax to support it. Cole pushed for a 150-bunk facility supported by a half-cent sales tax to sunset when the jail was paid off, with five-eighths cent tax continuing for operations. In the end, the commission agreed to put a quarter-cent law enforcement tax on the ballot. In an unusual move, the tax has no sunset — it is to be collected in perpetuity to fund law enforcement after the jail is paid off. The commission paired the law enforcement tax with a use tax on Internet sales that had failed once before.

When the votes were counted in 2014 the use tax was rejected but the jail and law enforcement tax passed. People had seen the need.

After more than 30 public meetings and a lot of citizen input, Cole eventually had a picture of the new Webster County Jail, long after the money to build it had been approved. By approaching the jail project in a new way, Cole had been able to convince conservative voters disinclined to approve taxes that there was a need. Then they helped figure out what the building would be.

“In the end no individual got everything; it was a great community project where all voices were considered,” Cole says. “It is not what any one person wanted — it is what everybody wanted.”

When the new jail goes online in late summer this year, the facility will fulfill Sheriff Cole’s vision of a modern jail, one of which he and Webster County can be proud.

The 116 bunks in the new jail will reflect the current 70-90 average daily prisoner headcount. There will be cells for those who must be separated from the general population. There will be designated cells for female prisoners. In short it will be a modern penal facility.

A pod system around a central control unit will make the daily routine of moving, transferring and monitoring prisoners far less dangerous for detention officers. The sally port for moving prisoners in and out of vehicles will reduce the possibility of escape and, again, improve safety for officers. But perhaps the most forward-looking cellblock will be the one designated for work release.

Cole is serious about this program. “This will be for low-level offenders who can maintain a job,” Cole said. “We think this is important.” If a judge approves, those admitted to the program will spend their nights and weekends in jail; their days remaining productive members of the community, going to work like everyone else. There will be space for 12 male and eight female prisoners.

The sheriff points to the disruption that jail time for minor crimes brings to the individual’s life. Jobs, families and lives fall apart with even short custodial sentences, putting inmates back into society with few options and a broken support system. His focus on this plan means that those deemed by a judge to be trustworthy enough to be placed in the program will leave at the end of their sentence with their lives far more intact. They will still have a job — the piece of the social pie that so often separates the career criminal from the one-mistake citizen. Cole’s hope, based on facts and experience, is that the work-release inmates will be those he sees one time. Cole, as all county sheriffs, sees a constant parade of familiar faces and family names rotating through his jail. This is his way of breaking that pattern.

To learn more about HMN’s focus in justice architecture, visit https://hmnarchitects.com/markets/justice/
**Originally published by THE MISSOURI SHERIFF in Spring 2019 by Michael Feeback – MO Sheriffs Magazine

Posted on May 8, 2019
Category: Featured Projects, HMN Client News

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