Prison time

The Missouri State Penitentiary was a big part of my childhood life. It sat six blocks from my house and was a massive, old-looking place with real stone walls instead of fences. There were towers along those walls, and you could see the guards armed with long rifles in them. It was imposing and scary, although not as imposing and scary as some of the people in it. This was the state’s maximum security pen for the entire 22 years I lived in Jefferson City, and for a chunk of time afterward.

Honestly, I always thought it was as scary as hell, especially when there was an escape or one of a seemingly endless parade of inmate murders — Time magazine once named it “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” It sat on a steep hillside, and I could look into the center of the prison yard from spots on the outside. Those prisoners were just a few hundred yards and a million miles away from where I stood. Sometimes you could see them waving handkerchiefs to the people outside the walls.

It was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi when it closed in 2004, having opened in 1836. By then, I was more than 30 years gone from Jefferson City, and I hadn’t thought about it much in the intervening time. Large chunks of the prison were torn down and redeveloped within a few years, and the rest began to rot.

Or it did until it was turned into a tourist attraction. Now you can go on a variety of tours through what’s left of the prison. That has never sat entirely well for me, especially since the options include ghost tours and the more deluxe “overnight paranormal investigations.” In the gift shop, you can buy lip balm that comes in a little ball-and-chain holder and T-shirts with the “I Did Time in…” theme.

But I was in Jefferson City with my wife recently to visit family and we were looking for something to do one afternoon. My sister suggested the prison tour. I was hesitant, but I had pretty much shown my wife everything else in Jefferson City over the years, so we decided to take the option.

It’s still creepy, of course, and large parts of it continue to crumble and have been condemned. But the tour, to my great relief, was respectful and informative. The guide knew his stuff and laid out the long history of the place, along with its famous inmates (including Pretty Boy Floyd, James Earl Ray, Sonny Liston and even Emma Goldman). He kept his tone appropriate, even when we were brought to a large, windowless punishment “hole” where lights were left off 24/7 for the prisoners who were thrown in there. He turned off the lights and the utter blindness just descended on you. Imagine living in that for a few days or weeks.

When the guide brought us to the end of a hallway and started showing us display photos of the gas chamber, I knew the tour was almost up. I honestly think that hanging, if done properly (it breaks your neck and kills you instantly), is a more humane way of death than hearing those cyanide tablets hit the vat of acid beneath your seat, creating the gas that would kill you once you inhaled. I imagine some inmates held their breath as long as they could. Forty of them died in that chamber.

To get there, you needed to get back into your car and drive around to the back of the complex — they used to hike people down there but the steep hill turned out to be a problem on several fronts. My sister told me that people like to sit on the gas chamber’s two seats and have photos taken. We decided we didn’t need to see that, so we went to Central Dairy for ice cream and a little soul-cleansing.

I’m still reflecting on how I feel about that tour. Perhaps that was the whole point.

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