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"Neglect" a threat for Missouri State Penitentiary

The Missouri State Penitentiary closed in 2004 due to deteriorating conditions at the 150-year-old facility. KBIA’s Samantha Sunne explains how this deterioration has continued into the prison’s life as a Jefferson City tourist destination and historic landmark.

Tour guide Mark Schreiber leads a tour group around a puddle of murky water covering half the floor of Housing Unit 3. He has to avoid areas of the prison that have deteriorated to the point of becoming safety hazards.

For three years now, visitors have had the opportunity to get a glimpse past the towering rock-hewn walls of one of the country’s oldest prisons. Inside they find broken windows, mold-infested corners and rusted iron cages that once held the worst criminals in Missouri. They step over chunks of plaster wall and under doorways of crumbling stone.

But that isn’t scenery for dead prisoners who supposedly haunt the old stone walls. They’re signs of a prolonged deterioration that could signal the end of the Missouri State Penitentiary as a tourist destination and historic landmark.

“Demolition by neglect, really, is what’s happening over at MSP right now. The buildings are being neglected and therefore they are falling apart, and at some point we’ll not be able to be open for tours,” said Steve Picker, Executive Director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Picker says the prison puts Jefferson City on the map as a tourist destination. When the bureau started tours there three years ago, it had around 4,000 visitors. Last year it had more than 17,000. But there is no funding nor any plans for the preservation of the prison, which sources say is close to deteriorating beyond repair. Picker and others in charge say they don’t know what will ultimately happen to the historic site.

“I don’t know what will happen next, but we do need to figure out a way that if funds are generated either through a non-profit or through donations that they can be used at the site. And right now we just don’t have a mechanism in place to make that happen,” Picker said.

Tourists aren’t the only ones who care about the prison. Jefferson City residents identified MSP development as their number one priority for development in the city in a voter survey. But they don’t want to pay for it, either. Voters recently rejected a proposed sales tax to pay for the needed renovation.

Debbie Brown opened Prison Brews a few blocks away from MSP in 2008. Her prison-themed pub has an interest in the nearby tourist attraction, but Brown says local business in general would pick up if the promised development were to actually take place.

“I think most residents here would like to see it grow, more things actually happen there,” Brown said.

A commission was tasked with the site’s preservation in 2001, but its progress stalled due to a lack of funds. Gene Bushmann is a member of the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission. He says the commission is only able to take an advisory position at this point.

“Right now it’s just making plans, making decisions about if we get some funds,” Bushmann said.

The commission rarely meets because the members feel they don’t have enough to discuss. Though they are charged with caring for the site, members consider the funding and preservation of the site to be ultimately the state’s responsibility.

“Those are and will always be state buildings. So it’s fundamentally a state responsibility for the preservation,” Bushmann said.

But for decades, the state has always had other priorities. Carl Vogel says funding for the prison was in a dire state even twenty years ago, when it was still in use. At the time, Vogel was serving in the Missouri General Assembly.

“By the time budget rolls around, here we are in late March, it’s been tight budgets lately and priorities, programs, salaries… it always falls by the wayside,” Vogel said.

Especially now, when the state is in financial stress, an unoccupied prison is unlikely to receive state funds. But another reason for the advanced deterioration is that the site was not well cared for in the years after its closing, according to Pete Oetting. Oetting worked at MSP as a corrections officer and continued visiting the prison soon after it closed. He calls the state an absentee landlord.

“There were buildings that had the windows wide open. I mean wide open, the towers and stuff like that. And just left it that way. There was no thought into putting the buildings into storage,” Oetting said.

But some projects have been completed. Some areas of the site were redeveloped, and now a new federal courthouse and a state health lab occupy some former prison land. Bushmann says he admires the state’s ability to make repairs where it can.

“Somehow they managed to make repairs to the gas chamber last year, which was quite remarkable,” Bushmann said.

Schreiber worries that someday MSP will be represented only by a plaque reading, ‘This was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi.’ It might as well be a tombstone.

“The important thing is that people realize that’s a very valuable piece of our history. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Schreiber said.

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