I was a first year law student when I saw the sign on the bulletin board offering law students the chance to sign up for a tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
This was a long time ago, when the law school at the University of Missouri was housed in rickety old Tate Hall, long since replaced, and the Missouri State Penitentiary was down by the Missouri River, much ricketier as it turns out than even Tate Hall, and also, long since replaced.
Having an interest in prison movies, the criminal justice system, and anything that might serve to break the incredible intensity and drudgery of the first year of law school, I signed up.
I had no idea what was in store.
The old MSP had been in service since 1836. It has been called the bloodiest 47 acres in America.
Over the years, it had housed the baddest of the bad.
Within those walls had been numerous riots, rapes, beatings, stabbings, assaults and murders.
Among its former residents were Pretty Boy Floyd, Sonny Liston, and James Earl Ray, who in fact had escaped from MSP and been a fugitive from justice before he assassinated The Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis about a year later.
And after going through the elaborate security and orientation process for visitors, our small group of law students walked through the crowded prison yard, surrounded by guards to shield us from the frightening mass of humanity.
It was crowded. Inmates were everywhere. They were a frightening lot, and that’s how they wanted to be. They were also very much interested in our presence.
I felt unlike I had ever felt before – intimidated, overwhelmed, and awed by the intensity of the atmosphere there.
From the yard, we were shown the cell blocks, the cafeteria, the license plate factory, the gas chamber, and death row, where we walked along the rows of cells of the condemned, many of whom have in the years since taken their last walks.
The whole experience was unimaginable, nothing like the movies. You just had to be there to comprehend the atmosphere in such a place.
I couldn’t imagine being incarcerated in such an environment, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year.
It was obvious how those who go in, and stay for any significant length of time, come out different than they went in. You just wouldn’t be the same.
I have since had occasion to go into penal facilities on a number of occasions. I’ve represented people in prison. I’ve also visited, interviewed and taken depositions of witnesses who were incarcerated in prison.
They all are different in their own ways. But they are also all similar in ways – oppressive, noisy, and intimidating, and the sound that the bars make when they are shut behind you is daunting.
Few fates would seem more unimaginably frightening than to be an innocent person locked up in such a hell hole.
Still, we know it happens.
Ask Lamont McIntyre, who was imprisoned for a murder at the age of 17 that he did not commit, and was released from a Kansas prison earlier this month after 23 years of wrongful incarceration.
And so what should we take from this injustice?
Well, first, we need to adequately fund the legal defense of poor people charged with serious crime. Missouri’s State Public Defender system is horrendously under-staffed, under-funded, and in turmoil. And justice suffers and will continue to suffer until this is remedied.
Police and prosecutors need to be answerable for misconduct. The vast majority of police and prosecutors are conscientious and ethical in the way they do their jobs. But we must be always vigilant to ensure that. For those who aren’t can bring about injustice on a grand scale. It has been documented again and again.
And, we need a system in place to compensate those wrongfully incarcerated for what has happened to them. Many states do that. Some do not. Kansas doesn’t.
For, a just society is not an inexpensive proposition. But if we value it, then we must adequately fund, maintain, and monitor it.
-- Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org