Missouri State Penitentiary

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The Missouri State Penitentiary, also known as "The Walls", was a prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, that operated from 1836-2004.[1] Part of the Missouri Department of Corrections, it served as the state of Missouri's primary maximum security institution[2] Before it closed, it was the oldest operating penal facility west of the Mississippi River and was infamously referred to as the "bloodiest 47 acres in America".[citation needed] It was replaced by the Jefferson City Correctional Center, which opened on September 15, 2004.[3]

Early history[edit]

The Missouri State Penitentiary was constructed in the early 1830s to serve the newly admitted state of Missouri. Jefferson City had been designated the state capital in 1822, and Governor John Miller suggested that the state's main prison be constructed there, to help the city maintain its somewhat tenuous status against other towns trying to obtain the capitol for themselves.[4] James Dunnica, a master stonemason who built the first Capitol building in Jefferson City in 1826, was appointed to oversee construction of the new prison, and $25,000 was allotted by the legislature for expenses.[4] The facility opened for business in March 1836, the same month as the fall of the Alamo in Texas.

Prisoners were employed during the 1830s in making bricks; the initial prison population consisted of one guard, one warden, 15 prisoners, and a foreman for the brick-making operation with an assistant. Eleven of the 15 prisoners were from St. Louis, and all were incarcerated for larceny except for one, who was imprisoned for stabbing a man during a drunken brawl.[5]

Warden Wyrick[edit]

MSP Warden alt text
MSP Warden Donald "D.W." Wyrick.

Warden Donald "D.W." Wyrick was the youngest, longest tenured and last "official" Warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary, also known as "The Walls" and "The Big House." He was the only warden to work his way up through the ranks. In less than 15 years after beginning as a guard, he became warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary during the most turbulent time in its history. Warden Wyrick was credited on many occasions for keeping the old penitentiary under control when events brought the penitentiary to a boiling point. His extensive knowledge of prisons and extraordinary ability to communicate with convicts led to the capture of escaped convicts, contraband weapons being found, and prevented escapes from happening. Warden Wyrick was well known throughout the United States and other countries as being the most superlative Warden of any penitentiary. He was sought after by many states to oversee their penal systems. Two books have been published about Warden Donald "D.W." Wyrick; "Man of the Big House, Missouri State Penitentiary, A Warden's Warden" and "If Only the Old Walls Could Talk, The Legend of Warden Wyrick".


MSP Warden Wyrick alt text
MSP Warden Wyrick. Housing Unit A in background.

In 1868, A-Hall, also known as Housing Unit A and Housing Unit 4, was finished. The building was constructed of stone quarried on site and built mainly by inmates. Warden Horace Swift was the architect of the structure. It is still standing today, and housed inmates until the day the prison was closed. A museum was to be set up in this housing unit but has since been canceled due to a lack of funding.[citation needed]

Famous inmates[edit]

On April 19, 1919, Kate Richards O'Hare was brought to M.S.P. to serve a five-year sentence for an anti-war speech she had given in Bohman, North Dakota, some months earlier. Kate O'Hare's prison sentence was commuted by President Woodrow Wilson in May 1920. Later she was given a full pardon by President Calvin Coolidge.

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd entered M.S.P. on December 18, 1925, for a robbery.

In the fall of 1953, a young Kansas City boy was kidnapped and brutally murdered. A week later the murderers, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady, were arrested. They were tried and sentenced to death for their crimes. The federal government had no facilities to carry out the execution, so M.S.P. was selected to carry out their sentence.

James Earl Ray was admitted to the penitentiary in March 17, 1960. On April 23, 1967, prisoner #00416J escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in a bread box that was supposed to contain loaves of bread that was being transported from M.S.P. to the Renz prison. Somewhere during the trip, Ray escaped. Ray was later convicted for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968.[6]


In its daily "Times Past" column, the "Irish Times" had the following column in 1990 and 2000:

Tired of Irish Stew
Jefferson City, Missouri.
Some five hundred more convicts at the Missouri State Penitentiary mutinied to-day. Seven hundred and fifty prisoners in the same institution struck yesterday, following on the refusal of their demand for grilled meat instead of the continual Irish stew, and refused to leave the dining hall, though they were subsequently persuaded to disperse peaceably by the Governor.
The prisoners to-day, who demand better food and better working conditions, downed tools at all the prison factories. They were quickly marched back to their cells.
The Governor announced tonight that he had discovered an organised plot among the convicts responsible for to-day's riots to set fire to the prison factories and make their escape.
The Irish Times, March 28th, 1930.

In 1954, there was a major riot at the Missouri State Penitentiary. The Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri National Guard, and police departments from Jefferson City, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri were called in to help quell the riot. When it was all over, four inmates had been killed, 29 had been injured and there had been one attempted suicide. Four guards had been seriously injured. Several buildings had been burned; with damages estimated at 5 million dollars. No inmates were able to escape during the incident. Burnt buildings and other damage from the riot would remain visible for the next ten years.

In the summer of 1996, the Missouri State Penitentiary was experiencing a lot of tension between officers and convicts. The Superintendent and Major Eberle reinstated the Search and Response Team. The team managed to ease the tension and help slow the contraband coming into the penitentiary.


On January 6, 1989, inmate George "Tiny" Mercer was executed. It was the last execution to take place at the Missouri State Penitentiary and the first execution by means of lethal injection.


In 1974, Lillian Bonds became the first female Correctional Officer to work in a male correctional facility. This was also the year that the official job classification for custody staff was changed from "Guard" to "Correctional Officer".


On October 22, 2003, a murder/escape attempt occurred at M.S.P. Inmate Toby Viles was murdered by two offenders that worked with him in the prison's ice plant. Inmate Shannon Phillips has pled guilty of the murder. Inmate Christopher Sims was also present in the Ice Plant during the time of the murder, but has yet to stand trial. Inmate Phillips and Sims were found 4 days later in a room that the inmates had prepared for an extended stay. The room was concealed from corrections staff until they began to punch holes in peg boards that covered the walls. The offenders were planning to wait until the closure of M.S.P. to escape. They were only off by about 11 months.

Death row[edit]

Before April 1989, the State of Missouri's male death row was located at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Death row inmates were held in a below-ground unit and were isolated from other inmates. Death row inmates did not leave their special death row facility, and all services were brought into the unit. Each death row inmate was allowed one hour of exercise per day in a fenced area next to the death row facility. Missouri Department of Corrections said, "With restrictions on movement and limited access to programs, conditions of confinement for death row inmates mirrored those found in other states," and "As with other states using prison facilities constructed before the turn of the [21st] century, conditions at Missouri State Penientiary were less than favorable for both death row inmates and staff." After a legal challenge, the Missouri Department of Corrections began to use an internal death row classification system with privileges awarded by behavior, changes in medical services delivery procedures, and a "privacy room" where death row inmates could attend religious services.[2]

The Potosi Correctional Center (PCC) opened in 1989.[7] In April 1989 the state transferred its 70 death row inmates from JCCC to Potosi.[8]

Closure of MSP[edit]

In 1991, the name Missouri State Penitentiary was changed to the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In 2003, it was changed back to Missouri State Penitentiary so there was no confusion between the old prison, and the new one that was being built.

The Missouri State Penitentiary was closed on September 15, 2004 and the new Jefferson City Correctional Center was opened.

Source of information[edit]

Most of the information is from a handout titled "History of the Jefferson City Correctional Center" produced sometime around 2001. There is no author noted in the handout to credit with the information. However, the handout was produced by the administration of the Jefferson City Correctional Center.

There is also a book called "Somewhere in Time", written by Mark Schreiber, which goes into great detail regarding MSP. Mr. Schreiber had been previously employed by the Cole County Sheriff's Office until he was hired by Warden Don Wyrick at M.S.P. Although he is retired from the Department of Corrections, he currently is a tour guide for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, and frequently conducts tours of what remains of the old prison. Tours can be booked at www.missouripentours.com.


  1. ^ "Jefferson City Correctional Center." Missouri Department of Corrections. August 14, 2003. Retrieved on September 18, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Lombardi, George, Richard D. Sluder, and Donald Wallace. "The Management of Death-Sentenced Inmates: Issues, Realities, and Innovative Strategies." Missouri Department of Corrections. 8. Retrieved on September 18, 2010.
  3. ^ "Jefferson City Correctional Center." Missouri Department of Corrections. May 7, 2006. Retrieved on September 18, 2010.
  4. ^ a b The History of MSP, from the website on the penitentiary operated by the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Retrieved on 2010-02-05.
  5. ^ Prison Problem in 1836, from the website on the penitentiary operated by the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Retrieved on 2010-02-05.
  6. ^ Schreiber, Mark S., and Laura Burkhardt Moeller. Somewhere in Time : 170 Years of Missouri Corrections. First Edition. Marceline, Missouri: Walsworth Publishing Company, 2004. 237. Print.
  7. ^ Lombardi, George, Richard D. Sluder, and Donald Wallace. "The Management of Death-Sentenced Inmates: Issues, Realities, and Innovative Strategies." Missouri Department of Corrections. 8-9. Retrieved on September 18, 2010.
  8. ^ Lombardi, George, Richard D. Sluder, and Donald Wallace. "The Management of Death-Sentenced Inmates: Issues, Realities, and Innovative Strategies." Missouri Department of Corrections. 9. Retrieved on September 18, 2010.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°34′24″N 92°09′38″W / 38.573409°N 92.160584°W / 38.573409; -92.160584