168 years of history at the  Missouri State Penitentiary.

July 23, 2017

Touring an old prison may not be everyone’s  idea of an adventure, but I found it fascinating!  The Mo. State Penitentiary opened in Jefferson City, Missouri in  1836 and closed in 2004.    Nowadays, with advance reservations,   tours  of the remaining buildings and grounds are given , many times by men who has previously worked as guards at the prison.   Besides seeing the women and men’s cells, I saw  the showers,  the exercise yard,  solitary, death row, the hole ( cells where the  criminally insane lived ) and   the gas chamber.

If these walls could talk….

The  first and now oldest cell – each cell  housed 6 men with  a chamber pot, a bucket with drinking water, straw mattresses and no heat.

In 1842 the first women  prisoner arrived.   Having no place separate  to house women, she was soon released.

In 1893 the prison fed  and housed each inmate on 11 cents a day.

By 1900 there were 2200 prisoners.

In 1932  this prison was the largest in the country with 5200 inmates.

In 1954  the prison was national news due to rioting within the walls.

By 1967, Time magazine called this prison the bloodiest 47 acres  in Missouri.

Prisoners were very clever and sneaky.  They could turn  most anything into a shank ( a weapon).  Our guide told us of a previous inmate who came back to take a prison tour.  He recalled  to the guide where he had buried  some shanks on the grounds  when he was a prisoner.   The guide went to the spot and , sure enough, they found the buried shanks, some of which are displayed on this board.

As Forrest Gump’s Mom said – “You can’t fix stupid.”

As a reminder to the  tourists not to be stupid –  warnings  are posted everywhere  not to close a cell door behind you.   Still, our guide explained, there are people who do it anyway and get locked in the cells.  The doors  were designed to  lock  when closed.  Over the years the hardware has  rusted and / or been damaged and may not open so easily.  He said some persons have had to wait up to 2 and 1/2 hours  for  help to get them out.

In certain areas,  prisoners were allowed  to paint and  ” decorate” their cells for that “more homey” feel.

Cells were built to  house 2 prisoners.  But as the years went on and the prison became more crowded,  the cells would hold 6.

Razor wire topped  the prison ground  walls to deter any ideas of climbing toward freedom.

If you happen to be a prisoner on suicide watch – you get a concrete bunk.

Mike was a stray cat who found a way onto the prison grounds and  lived out the rest of his years there.  Mike  would make his  predictable  daily  rounds collecting treats that  prisoners saved for him.   One prisoner  made a ” back pack”  of sorts for Mike and put cigarettes in it to be delivered to other inmates.

There were several note worthy prisoners who resided  at this Missouri  prison.  To name a few –   Pretty Boy Floyd  arrived in 1925 for  robbery,  Sonny Liston  in 1950  for robbery and larceny.  Liston learned to box in prison and after being paroled, he went on to  win the National Heavyweight Championship in Chicago in 1953.   James Earl Ray  arrived in  1959 after  robbing a St. Louis Kroger store.  In 1967, Ray escaped from the prison by hiding in a bread  box that was loaded onto a truck and left the grounds.  Nearly a year later , on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1954  prisoners rioted and  burned many buildings with in the prison walls.  Almost  2,500 rioters were on the loose inside the walls.  Highway patrol troopers, Kansas City and St. Louis police, national guardsmen and local police were called to the scene.  Troopers later stormed the grounds to gain control.  In the end, , four inmates had been killed, and 50 injured.  Only four officers had been injured.   Damage was estimated to be as much  as $5 million dollars.

For a fitting end  ( of this posting) – between 1937 and  1989,  40 inmates  were put to death in  the  gas chamber.  After that  all capital punishment inmates were moved to the new prison at Potosi. 

Thanks for reading!  Hope  you found this interesting!

I also visited the Missouri State Penitentiary Museum , the Colonel Alvin Lubker Memorial Safety and Educational Center and the Museum of Missouri Military History on that quick trip to Jefferson City.  All museums were free!   Watch for those postings to follow.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. K Davis
    Jul 09, 2020 @ 09:13:00

    My husband’s father spent time in this prison twice, and was so mean and horrible other inmates feared him. Unfortunately he made it out, that’s how horrible this heartless “man” was, I am not the only person who will say this. He married my mother in-law when she was 16 (he was in his late 20’s), she would get a severe beating over little things to the point you could not see her eye’s. He came from a family with money, and after getting married to my husband’s mother his family bought them a gas station. But instead he decided stealing was a better way to get money. My mothe in-law was put in the woman’s prison for crimes he did. He admitted he wanted her in prison at the same time, so she could not cheat on him while he was locked up. The prison she was in was different than the men’s prison. Cell’s was more like dormitories (usually unlocked), they had classes to learn a trade, there was job’s where the prisoner’s made money, there was a garden, they had dances, and to escape was to open a gate. A few year’s into her sentence new evidence proved she was not involved in her husband’s crime, and she was released. She divorced him after being released, and married a good man. To those who feel this and other prison’s was a horrible place where inmates was mistreated, and treated in a way no man should “I have a perfect example, why these prison’s should have been more harsh than they were”. We don’t put people in prison because they are the best of society, they are not there for a vacation, and if they cared about human life in any way “THEY WOULD NOT BE IN PRISON”.



  2. Judy Ludwig
    Jul 27, 2017 @ 19:41:24

    Very interesting Jeannie. I remember making a sales call at a Maximum prison somewhere in the middle of Illinois and it was scary. I asked if they thought people were really evil or mentally troubled and their answer was evil. They said they had several evil people in solitary with no remorse.



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