The Missouri State Penitentiary, located in Jefferson City, Missouri was a driving economic force during the Industrial Revolution because of convicts working in factories and learning trades. Today the prison continues to be a driving economic force in Jefferson City — for tourism.
Katherine Reed, Communications Manager at the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the prison appeals to a wide range of ages and interest levels. The interest in the prison can stem from fascination, paranormal interest or simple curiosity, Reed said. Although many visitors are from the central Missouri and Jefferson City area, others are from other states and even other countries. The prison has been featured on national television shows such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and American Pickers, and the paranormal thriller Apparitional (also called Haunting of Cellblock 11) was filmed there as well, Reed said.
The first tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary started during 2009, and during that year 3,000 visitors participated in a tour. As of 2014, nearly 20,000 people have visited the 179-year-old prison.
“Our most effective advertising is word of mouth,” Reed said.
Reed said the reason she thinks the prison is so popular is because of the diversity of its appeal. The Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau offers historical, paranormal and overnight tours at the prison. The paranormal tours and the historical tours are especially popular. People at every age — from elementary school to the elderly — enjoy taking tours, Reed said.
Many of the tour guides were either once officers who patrolled the prison, or they are former inmates that served time at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Also, this gives a special first-hand account of what actually occurred within the walls of the penitentiary and makes the experience of the visitor more fulfilling. Real stories from people who have lived them add a sense of reality to the tour, and people begin to understand what life was truly like there, Reed said.
Because the tours at MSP are so popular, they have helped the economy of Jefferson City.
“The visitors who come the prison are also visiting our shops, booking hotel rooms, dining at our restaurants and also seeing other attractions in Jefferson City,” Reed said.
The citizens of Jefferson City recognize the Missouri State Penitentiary as a great attraction for the city and they support the efforts the Convention and Visitors Bureau makes to showcase the prison, Reed said.
The state of Missouri and the city of Jefferson City have taken steps to preserve the decrepit penitentiary. During fall 2013, the city and state approved funds to remove mold, repair windows and patch roofs to ensure tourists would be safe while learning about the history and significance of the prison. Since then, a committee was formed to bring attention to problems that need to be fixed so that issues with the infrastructure do not go unnoticed, Reed said.
Currently, the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau is looking for new and creative ways to make the tours more engaging and interactive. Right now the Bureau is working to redevelop three different cells from different time periods of the prison to further showcase what life was like during those respective time periods. The overall goal of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is to preserve the historical aspect of the Missouri State Penitentiary, Reed said.
The future of the prison looks positive, Reed said.