COLUMBIA — Mark Schreiber had a few grim words of caution as he began a recent tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City:
"Whatever you do, don’t shut any of the doors behind you."
Tours currently run every weekend and cost $12 per person. Reservations may be made through the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau until the end of the season in November. For more information, call 866-998-6998 or visit missouripentours.com.
Schreiber, deputy warden of the Jefferson City Correction Center and former deputy warden of the state penitentiary, was escorting a group of tourists around the prison, a massive stone building that held convicted felons from 1836 to 2004.
It reopened this summer to give the public a look at what TIME magazine called “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” Until its closure in 2004, the state penitentiary was the oldest state prison west of the Mississippi.
Opened nearly 100 years before Alcatraz, the Missouri State Penitentiary once held as many as 5,300 inmates, including Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, boxer Sonny Liston and James Earl Ray. Ray had escaped from the prison before killing Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“The tours are just so fascinating, so much better than just seeing but actually being able to kind of experience the prison,” said Sarah Stroesser, communications manager for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Stroesser said requests to see the inside of the prison began arriving when it closed. In December 2008, the Convention and Visitors Bureau proposed the tours to the MSP Redevelopment Commission, a committee created after the prison closed. A new facility, the Jefferson City Correctional Center, was built in a more rural area of Cole County to replace the closed penitentiary.
With the commission’s approval, the historic penitentiary officially opened for viewing on May 2. At that time, tours ran once a week on Saturdays with Schreiber as the only tour guide.
“There was a demand for expansion [of the tours] the week after the first tour; we had five lines ringing off the hook,” Stroesser said.
“We knew the interest was there, but no one expected it to be this huge.”
Today, four guides run the tours, trying to make each one a personal experience for visitors. Dates are booked through October, and more than 1,300 people have already visited the penitentiary.
“It is great to have an attraction that is appealing on a nationwide level; it could really benefit both Jefferson City and the state economy,” Stroesser said.
Meanwhile, the tours serve a dual purpose: to educate visitors and to preserve a building with a rich and intriguing history. The redevelopment commission has no funds to repair the deteriorating facility where paint is peeling off walls and ceilings like hanging vines and a thick layer of dust covers the floors.
“We call it a ‘hard hat tour,’ but really, the most that is probably going to fall on your head is a hunk of paint,” Schreiber said.
The tour takes visitors through the gas chamber, where 40 prisoners were executed, and two former dormitories, including Housing Unit No. 4, the oldest building on site. It has been booked for a wedding later this year. Schreiber said he hopes to turn the unit into a museum.
“I didn’t realize the history of this place. It’s amazing to see and hear of the talent that was potentially wasted in there. I saw a flyswatter made of sandpaper in one of the cells; that just amazed me,” said Wayne Petrus, a visitor from St. Charles, as he came to the end of the tour.