JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
Bill Green remembers the days when a whole community existed within “The Walls” in downtown Jefferson City.
A former Marine turned prison guard, Green was one of the many workers who kept watch over some of the state’s most dangerous criminals at the Missouri State Penitentiary, less than a mile from the state Capitol and even closer to the governor’s mansion.
The site, which opened in 1836, operated as a prison until 2004. Now it has become an attraction for tourists, history buffs and fourth-graders visiting Jefferson City.
Green started working at the penitentiary when he was 22. He said that before he started, the prison was segregated — African-Americans in one hall, white prisoners in another. Desegregation, Green said, was not easily accomplished. In the 1960s, both sides were opposed to it, which led to racial violence in the prison.
“This place was more brutal than you could imagine,” he said. “Inmates died by the hundreds” throughout its history, he said, because of violence, disease and lack of sanitation.
But inside the walls was a community unseen by the rest of Jefferson City. The prison held thousands of inmates at one time, and most of them had jobs. Prisoners manned the desks, helped keep prison records and performed other clerical work while the guards kept watch. Some produced furniture for state offices, others produced license plates, and others helped manage the prison’s accounts. Industries contracted prison labor for little to no pay, often inside “The Walls.”
At one point, Green said, inmates were able to trade pints of blood at the prison’s hospital for time off their sentences.
The prison, which once took up a couple city blocks, has now been sectioned up for other purposes. A road was installed to the new federal courthouse on one end, and a wall has been knocked down on the other end and the courtyard — which once held baseball fields — has been turned into a parking lot for state vehicles.
Behind the parking lot, however, still stands a grim reminder of the severity of the institution: the old gas chamber. The chamber was last used in the 1960s; the state has since moved to lethal injections at a prison in Potosi, Mo. Forty people — 39 men and one woman, Green said — were executed in the chamber, including one by lethal injection in the 1980s. Now, tourists can enter the gas chamber and pose for photographs in the same seats where those prisoners died.
As its stocks have run low, the state has struggled to find more of the drug used in lethal injections. Attorney General Chris Koster last week said the only other execution method still allowed under state law is the gas chamber.
Green said he was a staunch supporter of the death penalty but that the gas chamber was a terrible way to carry it out. With lethal injection, prisoners are sedated before doctors inject a drug to stop their hearts; a gas chamber functions much less sensitively toward the prisoner’s feelings, he said.
The Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau opened the prison for tours in 2009. Since the opening, some 50,000 people have toured the site. It is open March through November. Unlike other historic sites around town like the state Capitol or governor’s mansion, tours of the former state penitentiary are not organized by the state of Missouri. The prison was lent to the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau by the state.
The prison has become an attraction for paranormal enthusiasts. Ryan Burns, a spokeswomanstet for the CVB, said the nightly “ghost tours” have become one of the fastest growing tours. In the ghost tours, visitors can stay at the prison overnight and explore some of the prison’s darkest areas, like the dungeon below A Hall. There, the worst of the worst were sent to small, unlighted cells where they were locked away for long periods.
One of those prisoners was John B. Johnson. He was held in the Missouri State Penitentiary in the 1880s and attempted to burn the place down three times before being placed in the dungeon. He was so infamous, Green said, that his portrait was made.
Last month, the bureau opened a new component: a small museum across the street from the Capitol to feature the prison. The bureau had hoped the museum would ultimately make its way to the prison grounds, but the grounds are not ready for a climate-controlled museum housing important state artifacts. The museum has an exhibit on the 1954 prison riot and fire, and a model prison cell where visitors can walk behind bars.
Inside the halls of the former prison, paint is chipping away and some of the roof has caved in, but it is unclear whether the site will be maintained in the long term. State lawmakers proposed funds this year aimed at the prison site, but those dollars were for a new office building on part of the property, not historic preservation.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, free for its first year. Tours of the penitentiary range from $12 to $35, and the ghost tours range from $25 for a two-hour visit to a $100, eight-hour overnight stay. Tour details and reservations: www.missouripentours.com or the CVB’s prison tour department at 866-998-6998.