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One more year for historic, but crumbling, state prison

March 03, 2003
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Unlike many of the dozens of prisoners who were executed in its notorious gas chamber, America's oldest prison west of the Mississippi has been granted a one-year reprieve.

The Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was slated for closure early next year, but with the state government in dire financial straits, the House Budget Committee gave preliminary approval to cuts in funding for construction of its replacement.

That would delay the opening of the new Jefferson City Correctional Center, which is set to be built just outside of the Capital City, and leave the crumbling state penitentiary open until early 2005.

The Corrections Department had requested $11 million to open the JCCC, but the committee approved a recommendation to allot just half that.

Opened in the same year Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and 185 other Americans died at the Alamo, nobody denies that the old prison is due for retirement.

Gary Kempker, director of the Department of Corrections, said that the walls of the old prison are literally falling down. He also reported that several of the locks in the old prison weren't functioning correctly, and that the building was expensive to heat and staff.

Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City, said he was concerned about the committee's decision.

"What we have been doing in the old prison is that we've been anticipating that we'd be moving out of there very soon," Bruns said. "Maintenance problems have not been getting the attention they deserve."

Bruns mentioned the prison's boiler, which he said was patched to make it through the end of this winter, but that might not last another year without serious repair.

Over its 167 year lifespan, the prison has been home to a number of colorful and notorious figures.

In 1959, a drifter named James Earl Ray stuck up a Kroger supermarket in St. Louis and was sentenced to 20 years. In April of 1967 he escaped from the prison in the back of a bread truck, and a little over a year later, shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Sonny Liston, boxing's heavyweight champion from 1962-1964 before losing his title to Cassius Clay (later named Muhammad Ali), learned to box on its grounds while serving time for strong arm robbery.

It also held "Pretty Boy" Floyd, an infamous depression-era gangster from Oklahoma who robbed as many as 30 banks and allegedly filed 10 notches in his pocketwatch, one for each man he'd killed.

In 1954, over 2,500 prisoners rioted there, torching buildings and attacking guards. Hundreds of police and National Guardsmen were called out to quell the disturbance, but in the process four prisoners were killed and 33 guards and rioters were injured. This garnered the prison so much national attention became known for a time as "the bloodiest 47 acres in America".

Read more about this Missouri landmark in "Somewhere in Time: A 160 year History of Missouri Corrections." by Mark Schreiber and Laurie Stout