A lot has happened at the Missouri State Penitentiary in the 11 years Sheila Sanford has worked as the prison tour coordinator: exponential growth in number of visitors, a tornado, the COVID-19 pandemic and new attractions, to name a few.
As the prison tour coordinator with the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sanford schedules MSP tours, supervises prison tour staff, works at the MSP museum and maintains prison souvenir inventory.
Sanford said her favorite part of the job is interacting with prison visitors and listening to the tours. The CVB offers history, ghost and photography tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Sanford particularly enjoys when school groups go on tours since it's an eye-opening experience for the children. The tour guides don't have scripted speeches, so every tour is different, Sanford added.
"To have someone who actually worked there giving the tour and knew the day-to-day operations and have actual true life stories, I think that's very fascinating to people," she said. "They can come to a place like the prison that has former staff and former inmates tell what life was like there."
Built in 1834, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the first prison built west of the Mississippi River and housed thousands of prisoners from 1836-2004. Called the bloodiest 47 acres in America by Time Magazine, MSP operated as a prison from 1836-2004 until prisoners were transferred to the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
The history of the prison is particularly fascinating to Sanford. Being a Holts Summit native, she said she knew of MSP but didn't know its history or the impact it had on the state.
"That makes it very interesting when you've got something like this in your backyard and don't know anything about it and find out that it was very instrumental in the whole state's history," she said. "To me, that's pretty unique. Not everybody has that."
When Sanford first joined the CVB staff in 2011, the prison attracted about 9,000 visitors annually. In 2018, it was more than 34,000.
The prison was on track to break another visitor record in 2019 but an EF-3 tornado brought everything to a screeching halt.
The tornado was "devastating," Sanford said. It crumbled portions of the wall surrounding the 188-year-old prison and ripped off the roof of Housing Unit 4, one of the main buildings shown on tours. The twister also damaged other buildings on the prison property.
Prison tours were canceled that year as staff worked toward recovery.
When prison tours reopened to the public in March 2020, another whirlwind hit MSP a couple of weeks later -- the COVID-19 pandemic. Tours were canceled for several months in 2020.
About 26,000 visitors came to the prison in 2021, more than CVB staff anticipated, Sanford said. The newly unearthed buried cells were added to the prison tours that season, which may have attracted several visitors, she added.
As the 2022 season officially opened March 1, Sanford said they hope attendance will resume to the levels they saw before the tornado and pandemic.
"We really struggled for a couple of years, but we're hoping with Housing Unit 4 having a roof back, that brings our tours back to normal," she said.
Those wanting to learn more about the tours and book them can visit missouripentours.com/tours.