Mo. state prison's maintenance blues

Oct 3, 2012

As a 5-piece band wound its way through an acoustic set of music, guests slowly shuffled into the “Inside the Walls” festival at the Missouri State Penitentiary. To the southwest, the main entrance to the prison towered over the festival.

Charles Vaughan used to live in a house across the street. He remembers the 1954 riots, which were the worst in the history of the penitentiary. Vaughan remembers his dad and brother were on top of a nearby building with guns.

“There was a big fire going on," he said. "My mom was keeping me in the house which upset me because I wanted to get on the roof and my mom was piling furniture right in front of the front door.”

But now the penitentiary looks much lonelier. Its paint peels. Some of its buildings have been torn down. In fact — of those that remain, some parts are even off limits to tours – this is due to a process Steve Picker calls “demolition by neglect.” He’s the former executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“This place is 100 years older than Alcatraz," he said. "And if you don't do something to preserve it, it's going to be gone. And if you lose this amazing piece of history, it would just be a terrible thing.”

Picker said the purpose of the festival put on by the Visitor’s Bureau is to draw awareness of the penitentiary. The bureau hopes to draw people to Jefferson City to spend money in its restaurants and sleep in its hotels.

But because of how the laws are set up, there’s no way to take the money earned at the festival and put it into the preservation of the penitentiary. That’s because the prison is still owned by the state.

“If money is given to the state, it goes into the general fund and can be spent anywhere," Picker said. "The problem is that no one wants to give money to be spent anywhere in the state . We already pay taxes.”

This is the second year of the event. Spokesperson Ryan Winkler said the bureau doesn’t keep track of the total number of visitors but does count the amount of visitors at prison tours. She said attendance this year at the festival looks to be up, which could mean the bureau has accomplished its goal of raising awareness of the penitentiary.

“I think that last year it was a bit of a struggle just because it was first event and we were still getting the word out about ‘Inside the Walls,’” she said.

Jefferson City resident Pam Harlan attended the festival and has toured the prison a few times,

“I think the convention and visitor's bureau is doing everything they can in order to drum up interest in this,” she said.

Harlan said she sees a tremendous historic value in the penitentiary. She said it could be made into a museum to pique more people’s interest. Still, Harlan understands the prison has a long way to go.

“Oh, gosh. It's been here for so long," she said. "I don't think it's going away any time soon, but it's going to get more expensive to rehabilitate.”

This year the state has received grants to tear down non-historic buildings at the penitentiary. Picker said he’s grateful for the money the penitentiary has received.

“But that does not repair the roof," he said. "That does not keep the water from pouring into these buildings. And once water comes into these buildings and things start rotting away, it doesn't take long before you get to the point where you can't have visitors any more."

Within the past few years, the penitentiary has seen a surge in the number of visitors. Last year, the penitentiary had nearly 14,000 more guests than it did three years ago. What is apparent is that if numbers continue to grow, someone will have to take the reigns of the landmark and spend money to fix it up.

Winkler said even though tours got a late start this year, the bureau is on track to break another attendance record.