“Make sure you stay under the walkway above you at all times. The prisoners like to shower their guests…”
I still remember the guard’s warning and wonder whether my parents, when signing me up for a “Scared Straight” tour at the Missouri State Penitentiary, realized that I might get peed on. I wasn’t a young criminal who needed a dose of reality – I was a naïve high school freshman who would sign up for anything that would get me out of class. Did they know that I would be walking death row and what that would be like for a sixteen-year-old girl from the sticks? Did they realize that inmates would shout obscenities at me that I’d never heard before, that I would immediately repeat on the bus ride home?
Twenty years later, as I sit on my friend’s patio across from the prison, sipping cocktails on an unseasonably warm evening, I stare at the vacant guard tower on the corner of Lafayette and Capitol. I want to tell him what I saw inside the prison but it’s so hard to explain all the chaos – like that inmate, who resembled Hagrid from Harry Potter, snarling and moaning as he walked around in shackles… or did I just imagine that? My memories are disjointed – the bullet holes, the men screaming at us through their cages – like a bad dream that I usually keep to myself.
When I first heard about the prison tours last year, I quickly dismissed the idea of going on one… until I met Naydene Quisling. She is like human sunshine and a mascot, or sorts, of the MSP tour and museum. She comes to my store every few weeks to browse new merchandise and discuss her busy tour schedule. “Prison tours are starting back up again in March!” she reminds me in late February, “You need to come down and check it out!”
Next thing I know, I’m on their website booking my tour. They offer several different options to choose from: a two or three hour history tour, tours that include a Q&A session with a former inmate, ghost tours, and even overnight stays where you research the prison’s alleged paranormal activity. Even though the overnight ghost hunt was cheaper than I expected, I opted for the basic history tour. Purchasing the tickets was simple and, within a minute, they’d already emailed me my reservation number.
I meet my friend the following day, wearing my most sensible pair of shoes. We inhale lunch and load my pockets with candy for energy, before heading across the street and into the walls
It’s hard to collect yourself after walking through the main entrance. Suddenly you’re surrounded by bars and this brutal, albeit beautiful, patina that you only see on documentaries about abandoned fortresses and sunken ships. After fighting off the urge to immediately take a selfie, we sign the liability waivers, buy a clever and inexpensive t-shirt from the souvenir shop and head out to the main courtyard to meet our guide who was already discussing his experiences with paranormal activity. He proceeds to tell stories about the early years of MSP: infamous criminals that did time there, various escape attempts, brutal murders, and my favorite story, which was about a cat named Mike who was a friend to all and one the most notorious smugglers of contraband behind the prison walls.
The first stop on the tour is “A Hall” which was built in 1836 and is the oldest structure on the grounds. It was easily my favorite part of the tour as you’re allowed to roam freely through four floors of cells. In the later years of its operation, inmates in this particular housing unit were allowed to paint their cells, leaving behind some pretty magnificent murals in some rooms and bizarre, erratic paint strokes covering the walls of others.
After running around like children, exploring as much as we could in this fifteen minute window, we were escorted downstairs to the dungeon. The guide tells us about the living conditions in this subterranean hell and turns off the lights so that we could experience total darkness like the inmates once punished there. A lady beside me turned on her phone’s flashlight, claiming it was too dark. Thankfully, she never shined it on my face to see that I was visibly annoyed with her. There were approximately 25 people on our tour and we were the only locals. One couple flew in from Canada for the tour, while another group drove up from Texas.
Our next stop was the main housing unit and the scene of my very first panic attack. It was oddly reassuring to see that my memories were real. It was just how I remembered it, aside from the eroded walls which had rapidly deteriorated during the, relatively few, years it was totally abandoned. I now had the opportunity to step back and look all the way up to the ceiling without fear of being “showered” and try to finally wrap my mind around the maze of metal cages, stairways and guard stations. The prison is enormous.
Our tour ended at the gas chamber, which our guide got a lot of mileage out of with his pocket full of puns about “the end”. We got to walk along the path that led forty inmates to their grave. Once inside the gas chamber, each of us took turns sitting in the execution chairs – definitely something I never thought I’d be allowed to do.
Once the tour was over, we visited the museum, which is where you really see the dedication involved by those working to preserve the prison. Not only do you get to see hundreds of MSP artifacts, you’ll also see inmate folk art (a collecting niche I never knew existed), original photographs and a replica prison cell. Maybe best of all, you’ll probably get to see Naydene there too. The price of admission to the museum is included in the cost of your tour. If you wish to visit the museum without going on a tour, they charge a $2 entry fee.
There wasn’t a single dull moment that afternoon. Our guide, who seemed mostly unscripted, was an excellent storyteller. All of the volunteers and staff members we met were warm and helpful. It is evident that they take an immense amount of pride in what they’re doing. Renovating the prison grounds has been a painstaking process. Before entering the walls, I couldn’t quite understand the appeal of volunteering to preserve a place with such a tempestuous and gruesome past. That was before I understood that, not only does the prison hold so many memories, it was also paramount to the development and success of Jefferson City. The history, albeit dark and controversial, is absolutely fascinating when retold in this format. I highly recommend finding yourself a tour buddy and booking this adventure - you’ll leave the grounds with a ton of pictures, feeling like a local historian!
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