Honor & Privilege

With help from ACC staff, Honor Dorm residents are finding success — and the program is garnering accolades.

Story by Marcus Wilkins  | Video by Maya Bell  | Photos by Garry Brix

Meet the residents of the Algoa Correctional Center Honor Dorm. VIDEO

It’s a picturesque spring day at Algoa Correctional Center (ACC), where mowers hum just beyond the fence, burger smoke wafts from a staff-appreciation cookout and residents train several wagging Puppies for Parole dogs on the bright green Mid-Missouri lawn.

April Vanover, assistant warden at ACC, knows not every moment here is this perfect. As a 12-year employee of the Department of Corrections, she’s had an inside view of the system from multiple perspectives: corrections officer, sergeant, case worker, functional unit manager and now assistant warden.

ACC Honor Dorm resident studying

But as Vanover leads a group of guests on a tour of Six House, aka the Honor Dorm — the innovative minimum-security housing unit where select residents enjoy additional privileges by committing to positive life choices — she understands part of her job is to embrace the sunshine.

“I’m known for being pretty stern, so that has certainly helped with how this place was received by the rest of the staff,” Vanover said. “These residents are being asked to follow the rules that the department has laid out, and they’ve done that. So, we thought, how can we reward this behavior? When we started doing that, we began to see gains on the other side.”

Vanover is the architect of the Honor Dorm program, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in April and has seen 250-plus residents to date make their way through. The success of the program is attracting the attention of fellow corrections professionals, state agencies and government entities in Missouri and beyond. The team who brought it to life have earned the prestigious 2023 Governor’s Award for Quality and Productivity in the innovation category, presented June 12, 2024, at the Capitol Rotunda.

A team of 11 staff members and house dog Honor in the Algoa Correctional Center Honor Dorm.
The team who created the Honor Dorm at Algoa Correctional Center earned the Governor's Award for Quality & Productivity in the innovation category, to be presented at a ceremony June 12. Recipients include Haven Nichols, Stanley Keely, Kyle Kempker, Jacob Johnson, Brian Schmutz, Jessica Overstreet, Catrina Blakemore, Ashley Chambers, April Vanover, Rebecca Pierson, Cheryl Haase, Adam Koestner, Denver Mistler, Aaron Ross, Andrew Fancher, Wayne Hofstetter, Angela Umstattd-Schmutz and Honor.

Appointed to the task by ACC Warden Kelly Morriss, Vanover used her criminal justice administration education to design the program and the unit, which houses 92 residents and includes rec space, a private yard, study areas, a kitchenette and a friendly house dog appropriately named Honor. Residents are free to move throughout the house and stay up past the typical “lights out.” The freedoms provide positive motivation for residents and a visible, aspirational goal for those who currently fall short of the eligibility criteria. In fact, during Honor Dorm’s first year, conduct violations decreased by 500-plus and major violations were cut in half.

A Higher Standard

Two residents play chess in the Housing Unit Six honor dorm day room

To qualify for the Honor Dorm, applicants must:

• Remain conduct-violation free for two years,

• Remain free from drug- or violence-related conduct violations for three years,

• Maintain a job assignment and/or attend school,

• Complete a program, and/or complete 90 hours of restorative justice (community service).

The Honor Dorm is modeled after European prison systems that prioritize maintaining normalcy and placing residents in the lowest security level commensurate with their needs. The approach has resulted in markedly lower recidivism rates abroad.

“The punishment has already been doled out; residents have been removed [from society],” Vanover said. “So, the goal is to teach them to be better individuals and they’ll be less likely to come back.”

Deputy Warden Kyle Kempker understood the challenges of implementing an Honor Dorm because he’s seen variations fall short at other institutions.

ACC Honor Dorm camaraderie

“You have to be able to fill the dorm with honor-status residents, and if the list runs short and you don’t have extra beds elsewhere, you have to put them into that dorm,” said Kempker, a third-generation corrections professional. “That can break down the integrity of an honor dorm. But we have continued to push toward better incentives, and there’s a waiting list to go in.

“In Six House, there’s no tension. There’s camaraderie.”

With the enthusiastic support of leadership at the top, Vanover was able to create a system that addressed the institution’s key needs.

“When we created the program, we were just coming out of COVID, facing severe understaffing and the K2 epidemic,” Vanover said. “We had to find a way to incentivize these guys because the punishments weren’t working, and if punishments can’t be enforced the way they were intended, there’s no point.”


Residents such as Kenneth “Cuz” Clayton, who is serving a 25-year sentence and is eligible for parole in 2026, appreciates the Honor Dorm’s absence of turmoil more than any of its perks.

ACC Family Day Dad Brother alternate cropping
Honor Dorm residents visit with their families on the yard
inside the facility, where they can enjoy picnics, play sports
and reconnect with loved ones.

“When I first came to Six House, I had two semesters left before graduating with my bachelor’s degree in communication,” said Clayton. “I was finally able to sit down in a study space and do my homework in peace.”

Honor-eligible residents also enjoy Family Days, when loved ones are invited to the ACC yard for food trucks, activities and extended visits. For many residents, it’s the No. 1 benefit.

“My mom, brother and sister came to visit for the last one,” said Zachary Trayler, an Honor Dorm resident serving an eight-year sentence. “I didn’t know my brother was coming, but he surprised me. You don’t see this kind of thing at other facilities. It’s a lot better experience than the visiting room because [there] you feel like you’re locked down. But in the backyard, it’s pretty much like a picnic.”

Another benefit of the residents’ self-governance is that it frees staff to focus on facility priorities. There is no corrections officer assigned to the Honor Dorm, which means more custody staff are available to cover areas where they’re needed. The cultural impact has led to a morale boost among staff.

“It’s less work for staff to maintain Honor Dorm than other houses,” said Jacob Johnson, ACC functional unit manager and 23-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Corrections. “There’s no use of force in here. There are no drugs in here. There’re very, very few violations that ever happen in here. These guys want to be on the path home and to become productive citizens on the way.”

Resident Kenneth Clayton

To that point, in the midst of a national drug epidemic, a recent unit-wide urinalysis tested all residents and found zero drug violations. And nearly every Honor Dorm resident also participates in the Global Leadership Academy, an offshoot of the Global Leadership Network, which provides prison residents around the world leadership training, motivational speakers and life-affirming strategies.

“We have a great track record here at Algoa when it comes to people getting picked for higher levels of responsibility, and I love being in that role and helping people achieve their dreams,” said Morriss, who has spent 33 years with the DOC in various capacities. “My hope is that they take some of the things they’ve learned here and put them to work at other institutions. I’m probably happier now than I’ve been in my entire career because I get to help so many more people realize their dreams in the department.”

Vanover echoes her boss’s sentiment. As she watches residents thrive and move on from incarceration, she aims to pass along what she has developed and learned to other Missouri DOC institutions — and beyond.

“I’ve talked to folks from Maine and Illinois, and people have contacted me from other prisons with questions because we believe in this system and we’ve seen it working,” Vanover said. “The other day I was stopped by a resident to thank me for being able to play ball [during Family Day] with his son for the first time in 14 years. Honor Dorm residents aren’t bogged down by the prison experience, so they can really expand on parenthood, leadership and whatever it is they need to learn before they go.”