Criminal justice students of the present learned Monday about prison life of the past as they and the state of Missouri discern futures of the justice system.
About two dozen students from Lighthouse Preparatory Academy took a two-hour tour Monday afternoon of Missouri State Penitentiary.
The Lighthouse students seemed to have had a lot of fun exploring the old grounds and housing units of the prison, which opened in 1836 and stayed open until 2004. Students got to roam the catwalks of Housing Unit 4, step into cells and crowd into one of the former dungeon cells in the basement — where they got to experience total darkness for a moment, as it would have been for prisoners sentenced to spend time there.
Hunter Marsh, a Lighthouse sophomore, said MSP looked "like all the prison movies I've seen," and his interest in local history stoked his desire to come visit.
Marsh said he's thought about a career in law enforcement or in the military, but he's not actually in the introduction to criminal justice course that mainly represented the Lighthouse students on the tour — he just had an opportunity to come along.
The intro to criminal justice course is taught by Chris Baker. The class offers Lighthouse students an opportunity for dual credit through Central Methodist University.
Baker said it's the first semester he's taught the course at Lighthouse. Before 25 years of teaching, he worked in the Missouri Highway Patrol for 27 years.
He said the goal of the course is to help give students an overview of the police, courts and corrections systems, and to help them understand how the goal of criminal justice has shifted from punishment to rehabilitation.
Anna Deutsch, a senior, said the visit to MSP showed to her how much more of a focus there is on human rights today in prison.
Fellow senior Arika Striegel said she's thinking about a career with the Highway Patrol, and is glad she won't have to work in a place like MSP.
Prisoners who served their sentences in the early days of Housing Unit 4 in the 1800s didn't have heat or indoor plumbing, and shared cells with five or six other inmates at a time. The occassionally-mandated communal bath was conducted in a water tank for horses, and it was filled with buckets of water carried up from the Missouri River — even in the icy grip of winter.
Prisoners sent to the dungeon cells were sometimes whipped beforehand, and the guards didn't mind whether inmates' wounds from the whipping got lethally-infected on the dirt floor.
Missouri's corrections system today is a far cry from prison life then. The death penalty has remained, though it too has shifted from death by hanging to the gas chamber to lethal injection.
Students got a chance Monday to sit inside the gas chamber at MSP, where 39 men and one woman never left alive — their pictures hanging on the wall outside.
Baker said at least two of his students have expressed interest in pursuing a career in criminal justice.