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Penitentiary tours prove crime can pay

Courtesy Jefferson City CVB

Americans are curious about crime and those who commit it.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in Jefferson City, where tours of the old state prison have been so popular that tour guides can’t get a weekend off.

“I haven’t been off a total weekend since last February because I do tours,” said Mark Schreiber, who is in charge of the tour program and gives a four-hour in-depth tour on Saturdays. His Saturdays are booked through mid-November.

Of course, the Missouri State Penitentiary was not just any prison; before it closed in 2004, it was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. It was a massive place, where inmates fielded sports teams, hosted boxing matches and made everything from clothing to saddletrees. Its prisoners included boxer Sonny Liston and James Earl Ray, who would escape from MSP and years later be arrested and convicted as the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr .

Tours began three years ago, and as demand has grown, different types of tours have been added. There are two-hour historic tours, four-hour specialty tours, twilight tours, photography tours, ghost tours and paranormal investigations.

“All of the tours are unique,” said the CVB’s Marianne Thies. “There are no memorized scripts.”

About half of the tour guides worked at the prison. Schreiber is considered the facility’s unofficial historian. On his tour, groups might hear about some of the talented prisoners he met when he began work at the prison as an art instructor, among them a painter who was commissioned to produce a portrait of a member of Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Tour takers are varied. Some are locals, others are tourists; still others are in town for a meeting or a convention.

“You have people who come back because they worked there or people who were former offenders,” said Schreiber. “I’ve had several of the former offenders who will say, ‘I don’t know if you remember me…’ If they were a ‘problem child,’ I remember them. I’ve had family members of former offenders come and say they wanted to see ‘where my dad did time.’”

The tour focuses on the prison’s oldest buildings, which are in decline because there is no money for upkeep. Schreiber tells those on his tour that down the road, they may come back to find a plaque instead of a building unless some funding is found for restoration. In the meantime, those on the tour wear hardhats and are asked to keep children in check.

Among the most chilling of the areas visited is the gas chamber, where visitors are welcome to have their photos taken.

Souvenirs, like T-shirts that say “I did time at MSP,” are designed and often made by inmates in the Missouri prison system.

Louella Pryor, who planned a meeting in Jefferson City as president of the Missouri County Treasurers Association, found several ways to integrate the prison and its history into her convention.

“We stayed at the Crowne Plaza and booked a motorcoach to take us to the old prison. Everybody loved it. They were even talking about how much fun it was the next day,” she said.

The prison theme continued during a conference banquet. A banquet room was decorated in black and white, with crime tape and handcuffs used as accents. A theater company orchestrated a murder mystery that tied into the treasurers’ work.

Pryor hoped to work in a stop at Prison Brews, a pizza and microbrewery two blocks from the prison where jail cell bars divide areas of the dining room, but the group ran out of time for such an outing.