Inmates Help Run Governor’s Mansion in Missouri
Dressed in a tuxedo and white gloves, the doorman at the Missouri Governor’s Mansion is quick with a smile and a greeting as he opens the heavy doors. Inside, another formally dressed servant graciously takes a visitor’s coat.
Guests at Gov. Mel Carnahan’s official home have come to expect impressive service.
What many do not know is that the doorman and the fellow taking coats are criminals. So are waiters, food servers and others tending to guests at formal mansion events. Even the chef getting compliments for his meals is doing time for assault.
They’re all part of an unusual work release program at the nearby Jefferson City Correctional Center.
Missouri is one of a few states where trusties--inmates deemed especially reliable and approaching the end of their terms--help staff the official state residence.
Since 1871, when the three-story brick building overlooking the Missouri River was completed, prisoners have served governors and their families.
Thurman Teeter, serving a drug conviction, is part of a full-time, eight-inmate crew performing duties ranging from dusting to laundry.
Teeter is assigned to feed, bathe and walk first dog Beaumont, a 140-pound Newfoundland hound.
“He’s a little temperamental at times,” Teeter says. “Sometimes, he doesn’t want to listen.”
Extra inmates come in for more elaborate events at the Victorian mansion, located about a mile west of the prison. They are searched when they enter and before they leave.
Inmate Bryan Coleman, who is serving a six-year sentence for receiving stolen property, still gets nervous after four months on the job “being around people I’m not normally around when I’m on the streets running.”
Sometimes he’s reminded of his prisoner status.
“People who don’t know we’re locked up, they tend to treat us with more respect than people who do,” he says. “But I’ve been treated a lot worse.”
Still, the Kansas City resident who’s due to be released early next year likes the special duty.
“I send pictures to my family. They can’t believe that I’m in jail and I’m sending them pictures in tuxedos,” Coleman says. “They’re like, ‘What kind of jail is that?’ ”
No one keeps national statistics on inmates working in governors’ residences, but policies vary among other states.
Trusties have worked at the mansions in South Carolina and Nebraska for about 30 years. Georgia has a dozen inmates working at the governor’s colonnaded home; officials aren’t sure when the custom began.
Then there are states that aren’t keen on such duty for prisoners.
“The closest they get to the governor’s residence is out on the highways where they’re picking up trash,” says Nuala Forde, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland.
Kentucky stopped using trusty labor at the governor’s mansion in 1980 when an inmate murdered a 25-year-old woman in the neighborhood.
A grand jury later found that inmates, housed in a dormitory on mansion grounds, had committed other crimes, had access to alcohol and had gambled with state police officers.
There have been no problems with the Missouri inmates, says Paula Earls, executive director of the governor’s mansion. She interviews all trusty candidates, and the tuxedos were her idea.
“We’re their last leg before they get out to society,” she says. “I treat them like staff. I appreciate the work they do. They are ready to go back out and make something of themselves and we hope we help with that.”
About 30 inmates show up for interviews every other month, she says. They must have less than a year left on their sentences before being accepted and are almost always nonviolent offenders.
There is some training before inmates begin work, and as Earls puts it, “We teach a lot of manners here.”
Though Earls says the use of inmates is not a secret, Lori Snyder, a recent lunch guest at the mansion, had no clue that her servers were convicted criminals.
“I am surprised,” she says. “We were just commenting on how good the service was. I’m impressed and I’m glad they have a program like this.”
Sgt. Phillip Prenger, a 19-year veteran of the Capitol Police, says inmates get more out of mansion duty than they would sitting in a cell. Two officers from the Missouri Department of Corrections keep an eye on them.
“This gives them a little bit of an incentive, gives them a little bit more self-confidence, a little different view of how people treat them,” Prenger says.
The program may help keep inmates out of trouble, though no statistics are kept to prove it. Prenger estimates about three of 60 inmates who have worked at the mansion the last few years have returned to prison.
The most recent overall recidivism rate was about 1 in 4, the corrections department says.
One inmate who spent a year at the mansion as a chef is now working for a St. Louis restaurant, Earls notes. He has even returned to the mansion to help with special events.
One of the more prized inmates working there today is chef John Jackson. Sentenced to seven years for assault, Jackson, 39, had worked in several restaurants in the St. Louis area.
Jackson didn’t meet mansion criteria because of his assault conviction and the time remaining on his sentence, but his qualifications as a chef made him “the only exception we’ve ever had, and he has worked out great,” Earls says.
“I present myself as a professional when I come to work every day,” Jackson says. “You get a little jittery at times, then you get into the flow.”
Jean Carnahan, Missouri’s first lady, says she feels secure around the inmates and admires them for their commitment to the jobs.
“Maybe some of them who have been out on the streets never had this chance,” she says.