On June 12, 1990, a former cook walked in to the Missouri State Penitentiary for the first time. Everyone of his senses was assaulted at once. The smell of sweat, urine and hot pavement made him nauseas. The sounds of yelling, cussing and the constant clanging of metal surrounded and trapped him. He looked around and tried to figure out what part of hell he had just stepped into. He wondered to himself if he would ever get out of this place alive.
Well, that former cook was me and I was 22 years old, wet behind the ears and scared to death. I had never visited, been in or even thought much about a prison before that day. I had applied for a cook job at the prison and a lady from personnel had politely told me that they didn’t need cooks…they needed Correctional Officers. I asked how much it paid and signed on the dotted line without another thought. I should’ve wondered why they needed Correctional Officers.
Lesson Number 1 for you young people out there…anytime someone offers you a really good job that no one else wants…there is a reason no one else wants it!
It’s been 20 years since that first day and I never escaped. I still work in prison. As I look back now and reflect on those days, I realize that I played a small part in a unique piece of Missouri’s history. Many may not think of Missouri State Penitentiary (AKA “The Walls” ) as something to celebrate in our history, but those of us that walked those tunnels know. We have heard the walls talk. We know that history is as much defined by the bad parts as it is by the good parts.
Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) was completed in 1836. It was the first penitentiary built West of the Mississippi River. To put that in perspective, 1836 is the same year that Davy Crockett died at the Alamo, that Pa Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie fame) was born, and that Samuel Colt received a patent for the Colt Revolver.
The prison that started with a Warden, a guard, and 15 prisoners from St. Louis., would eventually house more than two-thousand men when it was closed 168 years later. During this time it was home to some of this Missouri’s most famous outlaws and criminals. Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Frank James, The Young Brothers Gang, Sonny Liston and James Earl Ray just to name a few.
In 2004, it looked like this piece of Missouri’s history was gone forever. A new prison had been built to house Missouri’s toughest inmates and “The Walls” was to be torn down. But just as it has always done, MSP adapted.
This place that stood guard over Missouri’s citizens for more than a century and a half, would now get to tell it’s own story. Missouri State Penitentiary is now open to the public for tours. You can now view this unique piece of Missouri’s history from the inside. You can walk along the dark halls. You will be able to see the cramped cells. But most of all, you will get the chance to hear the walls talk.
For info about Missouri State Pen Tours go to: http://www.missouripentours.com/msp.html
Want to read more about Missouri State Pen from an officer that worked on the inside. Click the book cover below for my writing and poetry.
~ This blog reprinted from my original site. Copyright Ozark History Buff 2017 ~