Missouri State Penitentiary

No longer needed, a guard tower stands empty at the former Missouri State Penitentiary, now a popular tourist attraction in Jefferson City, Mo. (Jay Jones / January 7, 2011)

After ushering his visitors through the reception area, Mark Schreiber pushed a button that electronically shut a heavy iron gate.

We were locked in, but our stay at the Missouri State Penitentiary would last only a couple of hours — far shorter than those experienced by the inmates who walked these halls during its 168 years.

Although people no longer come to visit the horse thieves, robbers and murderers who once lived here, the old prison in Jefferson City still gets its share of guests.

These days, however, visitors pay to tour the place and gain chilling insights into what life — and death — must have been like on the inside. The same is true of Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston, home of the Texas Prison Museum.

Schreiber knows Missouri State Penitentiary well. He began his career here as a correctional officer and retired as deputy warden. The prison closed in 2004.

"I can't tell you what a rough place this was to work," he said. "I've had my nose broken, my ribs broken." Almost as an afterthought, he mentioned that he was stabbed once.

You might think the former officer would never want to return. But Schreiber is committed to preserving the penitentiary built with limestone quarried by inmates. To do that, he and others provide tours.

"People want to know what's on the other side of the wall," he said.

Inside Housing Unit 4, Schreiber said the building once housed nearly 1,600 prisoners, with just two officers standing guard.

Overhead, fluorescent lights buzzed incessantly and ceiling fans whirred, providing little relief from the heat and humidity as the retired prison boss shared his stories.

One of them was about James Earl Ray, the man who in 1968 assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One year earlier, Ray, a convicted robber, was serving his sentence in Jefferson City. About 11 months before firing the shot that killed King, Ray escaped by hiding inside a bread truck.

Visitors are given 15 minutes to roam, an opportunity never afforded the inmates who once occupied four floors of cells. Some headed for the nearest cell, where decades-old layers of paint have peeled away. Others climbed the stairs to tread the catwalks.

As they continued through the grounds, many awaited their stop at the small building containing the gas chamber.

Tourists took turns posing for photos seated inside the chamber. On a wall are mug shots of the condemned who took their last breaths less than six feet away. Schreiber said he had witnessed 51 executions.

About 700 miles away at another tourist attraction, a fellow former warden carried out 89 executions. Jim Willett used to run the Huntsville prison, which contains the state's death row.

Willett, who was within arm's reach of inmates while signaling their executioner, spends his retirement managing the Texas Prison Museum. It's just a couple of miles up the road from where he worked at "The Walls," one of seven penal institutions within the city.

The curiosity about corrections facilities is great enough that the visitors bureau in Huntsville publishes a prison driving tour, which includes a stop at the prison cemetery, where 2,000 unclaimed bodies are buried (http://www.huntsvilletexas.com/self-guided-tours.htm).

The museum is an ideal place to learn about life on the inside. Here, guests find a fascinating mix of exhibits, including amazing artworks created by inmates, seized contraband and the electric chair that was last used in 1964.

"Of any one thing in here, [the chair] draws more people than anything else," Willett said.

For many, the most compelling display is a series of black-and-white photos of men and women affected by capital punishment, with their stories beneath. But they are not just the accounts of relatives of murder victims but also those of relatives of convicts who died by lethal injection.

"You always hear about the families of the victims," said Nicole Juarez, a visitor from San Diego, Texas. "You never hear about the families who have to sit there and watch their family member go through the whole process of being strapped down to the gurney and having the IV put in and buttons being pushed.

"It's a whole new side of it," she said, while staring at a particularly somber image of a woman whose brother had been put to death. "The more educated you get, the harder it is to make a decision on which side of the fence you're on as far as execution goes."

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