Behind the Scenes at the Old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City

Outside walls of old Missouri state penitentiaryOne of the most unusual places I’ll ever recommend you to visit in your exploration of the world is the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City Missouri.

In 2004, the state opened a new prison with plans to tear down the old one and make a little money from the sale or lease of state property right on the bluffs of the Missouri River.

But before they did so, they opened the old building for tours by the public, many who had lived right outside its walls and had never seen inside. Others had lived inside the walls, but were now living productive lives and they too wanted a last look. So did the many former employees and their families.

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History of the Old Missouri State Penitentiary

Guard towers at the Old Missouri State Penitentiary.The old Missouri State Pen opened in 1836, so at the time it closed, it was the oldest continuously operating prison in the United States. It’s 100 years older than Alcatraz. At one point, more than 5200 people were behind bars here, making it the largest prison in the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was called the bloodiest 47 acres in America because of the number of deaths inside.

A cell block in the old Missouri State PenitentiaryBlanche Barrow of the Bonnie & Clyde gang did time here, as did Pretty Boy Floyd and a number of minor gangsters of the period. Sonny Liston learned to box here. A mural of him painted by another inmate can still be seen on the exercise field wall. James Earl Ray escaped this prison in November 1967 in a bread box and ended up in Memphis the next April.

Missouri Penitentiary Tours in Jefferson City

Tour guide and former guard at the old Missouri State Penitentiary

So, the original one weekend open house extended to two and then to three and four. The curious drove for hours to see this remarkable place in American history. Then all of a sudden, this became a thing and people were willing to pay for the opportunity to experience this otherwise undesirable destination.

Decrepit interior of old Missouri State Pen in Jefferson CityThe tours include three housing units, dungeons that date to the 1840s and the gas chamber. It bothers me that people like to get their photos taken, smiling, while sitting in the death chair at the gas chamber. Personally, I think it’s upsetting and disrespectful. Do what you want, but remember, 39 human beings died in this very spot.

Decrepit building in historic Missouri state prisonThe deterioration of the buildings and grounds contributes to the creepiness of the experience. The ghost tours are the most popular of all tours, so if you’re thinking about this for Halloween, make your reservations months in advance.

Along with Eastern Pennsylvania State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Alcatraz in San Francisco, these are the only three places in the United States where the public can tour a former maximum security facility. It’s certainly a portion of the American society that most of us know little about.

But if you’ve ever wondered what life is like behind bars without actually doing anything to get you there, this is a travel experience like few others.


Razor wire surrounding the Missouri State Penitentiary

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