About 20 LCARSP members and guests traveled to Jefferson City to tour the Missouri State Penitentiary October 16, 2015.
Our tour guide, Mike Groose, had worked at this penitentiary for over 45 years and was the warden from the early to mid 1990s. Everyone enjoyed his presentation of facts and stories of the prison.
Interesting Missouri State Penitentiary Facts:
- Oldest prison west of the Mississippi, opening in 1836, the same month as the fall of the Alamo in Texas.
- Largest of all American Penitentiaries -
- When people were convicted of crimes on the frontier, they would be transferred to this prison as there were no prisons in many areas of the newly settled West.
- Both men and women were housed in the prison.
- Its maximum capacity was 5,000 inmates, the most of any prison in the United States.
- Decommissioned in 2004.
Cell blocks and prison walls that were made of limestone, like the building above, were constructed by inmates. The limestone was quarried onsite. This building, A Hall, is the oldest existing building constructed in 1868 and was in continual use until 2004. It was built before electricity, plumbing and heat were available and had to be retrofitted as they became available.
The interior is quite stark and sobering.
There were four levels of cells in each building. Cells were on display that showed what life was like during different time periods. From the mid 1800s - 1900, these rooms held 6 prisoners at one time.
The door was about five feet tall.
Can you imagine living in this small space with five other people? Our guide mentioned that a study showed the Missouri State Penitentiary was the 'Bloodiest 47 Acres in America.' Looking at these conditions, one can understand how that infamous saying might be true.
During the mid-1900s, four-man cells became the norm and then in the 1970s, a law was passed to restrict cell occupancy to two.
These were the showers.
There was even a 'dungeon' area, used in the 1800s, for incorrigible prisoners with no windows and no lights.
We toured another cell block which was constructed after the amenities of electricity, plumbing and heat were available. Although it appeared modern in comparison, it was certainly not inviting.
Some infamous inmates at the MO State Penitentiary were Pretty Boy Floyd, George "Tiny" Mercer (who was executed in the gas chamber) and James Earl Ray. Ray observed a specific guard as he inspected outgoing vehicles and noticed he never looked in one particular part of each vehicle. One day he made it to the delivery area and hid in that part of an outgoing vehicle and escaped. He was WANTED by the Missouri Department of Corrections the day he assassinated Martin Luther King.
This newer building house twice as many prisoners as the entire prison of Alcatraz. Prisoners who assaulted other prisoners or correction staff were housed in isolation in the basement. They were allowed out of there cells one hour each day. Every other day, these inmates were allowed out of their confinement to shower and clean their cells. The other day, they were led to these outside cages and spent their hour in the fresh air.
Here are some other shots around the prison yard.
The women prisoners were housed on the upper floors of this building.
The entire penitentiary complex was around 40 acres in size. Besides the cell block buildings, there was an onsite quarry. Once excavated, the old quarry was turned into useful space for the prisoners.
This area was used for exercise, including a baseball field and walking track.
The penitentiary had onsite factories or workshops where inmates made everything from clothing to furniture and even harnesses for pioneers heading West. These workshops were located in this part of the yard. They had become dilapidated and were removed several years ago.
The wall, pictured beyond, was built with prison labor using the limestone from the quarry. The darker stones were from the previous wall. It was torn down and reused.
One of the expensive and inefficient parts of operating a penitentiary like this one was having to man the lookout towers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Newer, more modern prisons use electric 'Kill Fences' as effective perimeters. (In fact, no one has escaped in the state of Missouri from one of these new 'Kill' perimeter fences.) This new design saves money and increases safety.
Our last stop was the Gas Chamber.
This building was located between the exercise yard and the workshops.
As you can see, the building is small. There was just enough room for the chamber, small viewing benches for witnesses, a holding cell, two small viewing rooms, one for the inmate's family and one for the victim's family and a cleanup room.
Here is a photo record of those inmates executed at the Missouri State Penitentiary. These included one woman and a man who was convicted of raping an eight year old girl in the 1950s in Lincoln County.
One our LCARSP members, Janie Kiensy is pictured along side the photo gallery.
This was a very interesting and informative tour.
Our unit president, Diana Gough, is shown holding the keys to The Big House along with all those who attended the tour from Lincoln County.
The group enjoyed a delightful outdoor lunch at Prison Brews before heading back to Lincoln County.