An oversized cross and a green metal sign mark the border to St. Francois County. Bonne Terre sits a few miles down the line. The name suggests it’s “good earth," but that was back when mining was on the rise and long before the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center was built in the field across from the Neubrand family farm.
The 19-building complex sprawls across 76 acres on the north side of Highway K, just an hour south of St. Louis. Four of the buildings are allotted for diagnostic and reception use, while another six house inmates at various levels of security. Some 2,900 prisoners live on the grounds. They have a chapel, gym, library, medical unit, electric fence with warnings in multiple languages and an expansive parking lot that features a driveway named No More Victims Lane. For the past decade, the Missouri Department of Corrections’ most serious offenders have been executed in the outskirts of Bonne Terre.
On a Saturday morning, the prison landscape also includes a handful of people waiting in uncomfortable plastic chairs inside one of the sand-colored buildings. A man and a woman in blue uniforms sit behind a long desk while more stare at computers in a control room behind tinted glass. Decoration is limited to word-processed notices and signs telling you what not to do.
Two visitors pass through the glass door and approach the desk. The newcomers announce that they’re here to visit their son. Without leaving her seat, the female guard studies the couple. “You can’t wear jeans with holes in them," she says flatly. “You can go to the dollar store."
“We’re not from here," the woman replies. Horizontal rips run down each leg from below the pockets to mid-shin. It’s clear that this was done for style.
“You can’t have anything that’s tight or with writing on the side," the guard adds.
The woman turns to the man she entered with, then back at the guard. “I just need a good pair of sweatpants," she says.
“You don’t want them tight."
“Because we have offenders here."
People in the waiting room pretend not to listen.
The couple storms out of the waiting room, through the front door and past the flower bed with a marker proclaiming 25 years of rebuilding lives. They drive down No More Victims Lane and turn right onto Highway K, past the Neubrand farmhouse, and head toward the dollar store.
Dollar General is the closest store to the ERDCC. When out-of-towners are searching for prison-approved clothes, they come here, where the shelves are half-stocked and clothes dangle off racks at odd angles.
Across the parking lot, the Super 8 sees every aspect of the ERDCC crowd. During executions, families and friends of inmates and victims fill the motel. When unpredictable weather hits, the prison’s doctors and nurses check in for the night. Once a month, a church mission group that works with the prison rents rooms. Frances Dear greets them as they enter.
Dear, a commanding woman with blue-gray eyes, worked at the motel prior to serving a one-year sentence at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. While she was away, the police raided the Super 8 and found a meth lab in one of the rooms. Upon her return, she and the staff discovered a local man who had been released from the ERDCC. He had overdosed on heroin at the motel.
Past problems aside, the Super 8 is also the first stop for a number of non-capital offenders on their first night of freedom. With a blessing and a comped room from the church, the motel becomes a safe haven during their transition into society.
From the driveway leading up to their farm, Lisa and Brian Webb can see the ERDCC. The Webb Farm, as they call it, belonged to Brian’s grandparents before World War II.
In 2005, the Missouri Department of Corrections started executing prisoners across the street from their house. “Oh, did your lights dim last night?" Lisa’s coworkers would say after an execution.
ERDCC’s executions don’t bother Lisa. They end fairly quickly, but Lisa says the noise from the traffic on Highway K is constant.
On the eastern edge of the Webb’s 40-acre property, Brian built a wooden chair on a bluff overlooking The Big River. When he showed it to his 5-year-old granddaughter, she said: “Grandpa, you can meditate down here."
Less than a half-mile from where they stood, the state has taken the lives of 22 men.