Ah, summer time, when on-break academic types travel to see family and the decrepit relics of a once-flourishing Midwest. After seeing billboards for the Missouri State Penitentiary Tour one too many times along our travels to and from St. Louis, we broke down and paid our twelve dollars to visit, for whatever reason, this site of tremendous human misery.
An active prison from its completion in the 1830s until, astoundingly, 2004, the labyrinthine Missouri State Penitentiary once housed a maximum of 5,300 prisoners at once, according to our nice, sweet tour guide, himself a former long-serving guard at the prison. In his telling, thousands of prisoners died at the Missouri State Penitentiary over its 168-year lifetime, 40 of whom were executed in its gas chambers.
(Incidentally, the MSP gift shop proudly sells a set of 40 postcards commemorating its history of gruesome capital executions. Eight bucks.)
Quite a bit bothered me about this all-white (1), no-need-to-acknowledge-contributions-to-and-complicity-with-historical-injustices tour (2), perhaps more than I’m able to put into words. In light of this, this blog post iis not intended to be a thorough review or critique of the prison tour, but rather more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary approximating my feelings and thoughts from my two-hour stay in its terrifying walls.
- To be perfectly honest, a black woman and her daughter showed up at some point after the tour had officially begun, but left just after it was half over. I can’t be certain why this was the case, but the tour guide did acknowledge that we were sitting in the MSP’s all-black barracks shortly before they left. If this was not the reason, perhaps it was a realization that the tour was essentially a whitewash—in the sense of skin color, an event meant to be interesting/palatable for us and not for anyone else, as well as in the sense of a non-acknowledgement of wrongs, essentially a two-hour stream of quasi-governmental braggadocio about its accomplishments.
- The tour guide approached, but stopped short of outright criticism, several times. One example that comes to mind was when he recounted a man’s 17-year stay in the “dungeon” of the prison after the warden believed he started a major fire, ostensibly as a distraction that would allow for a mass prison revolt and escape. “That used to make a man crazy,” he said; emphasis on the “used to” portion of the quote mine. There was no acknowledgement that people are still held in solitary confinement for cruel and unusual lengths of time these days, with one example being a man by the name of Shaka Senghor. (Shaka spent seven years in solitary confinment as part of a 19-year sentence for murder.) I came across Shaka’s story in a recent Democracy Now! program on the efforts toward prison reform that have created strange bedfellows, from himself and liberal activist/writer Van Jones to the Koch Brothers. Of course, I highly recommend the program, which can be downloaded as a podcast as well.
Our tour guide showed us photos on posterboard from as far back as the 1870s inside the prison, with prisoners standing in line waiting to go from station to station inside their caged existence: barracks to yard, yard to mess hall, mess hall to showers, showers to barracks—wash, rinse, repeat. In a moment that either showed his hand or was meant to be a critique of poor record-keeping habits, he told us that no one knew the names of this man or that man in line; it was as if they didn’t even matter.
In the Missouri State Penitentiary, no lives matter. On top of this, were they even human? He repeated his mantra over and over again that outside the walls of the prison, we have our world. “We call it society,” he said. Inside the prison, they have their own world. They’re not like you and me. He recalled being the go-to mentor for new prison guards, and he would tell them, “You can’t trust them. They’re not like you.” They’re not human, essentially.
Our prison system is currently overtaxed and overrun, full of both violent criminals who should be locked up for life (or suitable terms to fit their crimes) and people who sold or turned to drugs and were hit with mandatory minimums and other drug war-era overreaches of an insidious and often racist nature. Obviously, there is not a binary that fits all persons presently in prison, but I mean to emphasize the problems of our prison system encapsulated by one statistic: the United States comprises five percent of the world’s human population, but somehow can claim twenty-five percent of the world’s overall prison population. We have a serious over-incarceration problem—one that the Missouri State Penitentiary certainly contributed to, having previously housed abolitionists who freed slaves and anti-war activists who ran afoul of the Espionage Act—but on this tour, nothing of this over-incarceration problem existed.
Through a recent tour live-tweeted by activist Deray McKesson, I became aware of the Whitney Plantation in rural Louisiana. Formerly known as “Habitation Haydel,” the Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a living museum of the history of enslavement. To the best of its founders’ abilities, they have tried to recover the names of all slaves who worked on the plantation during its history, and to transmit, in whatever terms possible, the manner of life lived by them. I’ve not been on this tour, obviously, but hope to someday.
Given the example of the Whitney Plantation, and the historical (and ongoing!) injustices in our prison system, the Missouri State Penitentiary tour could’ve been so much better. One wonders how long it might take for universal acknowledgement of penitential wrongs, however. It’s much harder to see and name injustice when we’re living through it and perpetuating it, whether through outright complicity or passive cognitive support.
Post Script. I might not have written any of this had the tour guide not ticked the last box of fanatical hasbara (a.k.a. “explanation,” a.k.a. pro-Israel propaganda). In the midst of emphasizing, in English, not to close any prison cell doors behind us after entering several times, the tour guide believed that there might have been someone among us fifty or so white people who didn’t understand him. (By this point, the black mother and daughter had left the tour.) “Is anyone here Al Qaeda? Taliban? Hamas?” he asked. “I’ll give it to you in Arabic!” He proceeded to speak in a Semitic-sounding language, but as I don’t speak Arabic, I of course can’t confirm if it was authentic or jibberish. I wasn’t aware Hamas had aided or abetted attacks on the United States. They haven’t, of course: lately, anyway, they’re usually busy responding to Israeli aggression against Gaza, as Max Blumenthal laid out so brilliantly in his recent “The 51-Day War.”
Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the sentiment espoused by our tour guide just after the twin towers came down, calling the acts of terror “very good” for Israel, which would henceforth be able to sell its struggle against militant Palestinian factions opposing its apartheid occupation as an analogous struggle to that which the United States would eventually embark upon.
It’s a special relationship. Very good for Israel, indeed.
Finally, I don’t know where exactly to put this, but here’s a cross on the way to the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber.