Last weekend my parents and I took a family trip to visit one of my older brothers in Columbia, Missouri. The original plan was for my father and I to attend a beer event, but since he didn’t even attempt to purchase our tickets until the very last-minute, we had a free afternoon to kill instead. Since none of us had ever been the Jefferson City, MO. (which just happens to be Missouri’s capital fyi), we decided to make the 30 minute commute and spend the afternoon as tourists.
It was another sweltering Midwestern summer day in a series of sweltering Midwestern days, so with temperatures reaching well into the triple digits our options dwindled down to anything we thought might not result in four large puddles of Duncan-sized goo. I guess that’s why we decided to hit the slammer, visit the clink, or rather take a tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Almost immediately you get the impression that this prison is both incredibly old and rundown. There are noticeable scars along the outside of the building, crumbling walls, broken bricks, and looming facades that make you feel much smaller than you had been upon exiting your car. I guess all of this makes sense in context though, considering that the original building to this prison was built between 1834 and 1836 when it officially opened its doors and accepted its first inmate.
In its current closed and sort of run-down state this prison is massive, which only added fuel to my excitement as we made our way inside. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for the final tour of the day, but as it turns out the prison was never equipped with air-conditioning in its 168 years of operation, so it was just as hot inside the thick brick walls as it was outside.
After paying the admission fee of $12.00 per person and signing the required waiver, our tour began with some history about the original building and early days of the prison. As I said before, the prison opened in 1836 when it received its first and only prisoner, and grew to hold 52,000 inmates at its peak. Apparently in its early days of operation, the facility only employed a handful of people and the number of prisoners soon far outweighed the number of guards and staff members. We weren’t allowed to tour the front half of the prison where the women were once held, so we soon moved on to the oldest section of the prison still standing, known as A-Hall.
From everything I could gather from our tour, A-Hall seemed to be where a large portion of prisoners were housed up until the facility closed. In the early years of its operation, prison overcrowding forced up to 9 individuals to share a single cell. Having been inside dozens of them during our tour, I can tell you that they’re even smaller than they appear to be in photos. I could easily stretch my arms out and take up 3/4 of the space, and can hardly imagine how more than three people could fit inside comfortably.
After a lengthy set of stories and history from our guide, we were allowed to wander around all three stories of A-Hall, which once even housed the famous boxer Sonny Liston among many others. This cell block was made of solid concrete and metal with thick walls, peeling paint, and narrow passageways. There were paintings on both the furniture and walls, windows flooded in light, and thick air that seemed to be standing still. All in all this was not the kind of place you’d want to spend any length of time in.
A-Hall is even home to a “dungeon” in the basement where prisoners were locked in complete darkness for days at a time. We spent about 2 minutes standing in a cell with the lights out, and after having done so it’s easy to understand how multiple days of this could lead to insanity as was often reported among the inmates unlucky enough to be held downstairs.
Next we headed outside to hear a few stories about riots, escape attempts, fires, and forced labor before moving on to Housing Unit 3 (or maybe it was 1 … I can’t remember). This building actually resembled a modern-day prison, but like a really out-of-date one with a 1920’s tile job and paint peeling off of every surface. I honestly can’t remember anything that was said about this building except that it’s most famous prisoner was James Earl Ray.
Ray was sent to prison in 1966 for robbing a grocery store in St. Louis and escaped in a bakery truck the following year. Unfortunately Ray was never caught, and assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Apart from James Earl Ray and Sonny Liston, who I mentioned earlier, the prison was also home to gangster “Pretty Boy” Floyd and once even housed Blanche Barrow, who was the sister-in-law of Clyde Barrow – as in the now infamous Bonnie and Clyde.
Despite all the stories we were told, there was really only one that stuck out in my memory. In 1954 there was a HUGE riot at the prison which gained national attention and placed its policies and treatment of prisoners under scrutiny. Once everything had calmed down and peace was restored, a committee was then brought in to evaluate the prison. They found the prison to be outdated and recommended it be closed immediately. The prison didn’t officially closed its doors until 2004, a lengthy 50 years after it that recommendation was made.