The recent decision by the governor to reopen the abandoned state penitentiary for tours has reminded me of my own time behind the walls decades ago.
No, I was not sentenced to prison. Rather, I was given an unprecedented level of access for a reporter to a prison holding Missouri’s toughest criminals.
It was a degree of access unthinkable today. That change says something fundamental about how the corrections system and criminals have changed.
My coverage of the state’s prison system began with an evening phone call from a Corrections Department staffer in 1973. Could I quickly get to the pen, I was asked, to cover negotiations with inmates about desegregating cell blocks?
The U.S. Justice Department had demanded Missouri cease racial segregation of cell assignments. But the possibility of a wholesale rearrangement of cell partners had created a tense environment among inmates. Prison officials later admitted they had feared a riot.
As part of the negotiations that night, inmate leaders insisted that a few reporters be allowed to sit in.
It turned out that a major factor involved inmates not wanting to tell guards about their sexual orientations. The solution was a committee of inmate leaders making the cell assignments.
The success of allowing coverage of that process behind the walls encouraged Corrections Director George Camp’s campaign for a more public and open prison system.
At first, that approach did not seem to sit well with his penitentiary warden. Don Wyrick was a hard-nosed conservative who clearly did not fully trust reporters.
But the two of us soon developed a close relationship. In fact, Wyrick went far beyond Camp’s policy by giving me round-the-clock and nearly unrestricted access to the pen anytime I wanted to come in, without supervision by corrections officers.
For years, I took full advantage of that access, wandering the facility at all hours of the day and night going after stories I got with help from inmate leaders.
Those leaders were older and serving near-life sentences. They became more than just sources. They became my protectors in the prison. And they became a conduit for passing along stories from a much wider network of inmates.
Behind the depravity of their crimes, I found inspiring sparks of humanity. Maybe that’s what led me to spend so many years telling their stories.
I was surprised how emotional these convicted killers could get in protecting stray cats that wandered into the pen. I was surprised how strongly they pushed to get me to do a story on how mentally ill and challenged inmates were getting victimized by fellow prisoners.
Wyrick strongly disagreed with that story. Nothing like that could happen in his place without his knowledge, he argued. But after he checked it out, he ended up thanking me.
I think that’s why Wyrick gave me unlimited access to his prison. When I sought his comments on stories, I gave him a better idea of what was happening in his facility.
It also was a way inmates could get their concerns to the warden without attribution and, thus, without fear of retribution.
Officials in Missouri’s current state administration could learn at lot from the benefits Wyrick so quickly realized from allowing unfettered access by a reporter.
I miss doing those stories that arose from my late-night wanderings behind the walls. But over the years, things began to change.
Both Wyrick and inmate leaders talked about a new generation of younger and violent inmates in gangs based on race.
Longer sentences with no chance of early release led to a growing population of inmates with nothing to lose. And, I was told, the nature of drugs coming into the pen had changed for the worse.
After more than a decade of covering prison stories, I began to realize it was no longer the same environment.