Today's Edition Local News Missouri News National News World Opinion Obits Sports GoMidMo Events Classifieds Jobs Newsletters Contests Search
story.lead_photo.caption Larry Neal leads a tour Tuesday at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Larry Neal spent more than 20 years of his life at Missouri State Penitentiary — not as an inmate, but an employee.

A 33-year-old Neal started working at MSP in 1984 in the maintenance department, after his wife asked him to find a job that offered insurance. Despite the low pay, Neal stuck with it.

Throughout his 201/2 years at MSP, he worked his way up. After six months, he was promoted to maintenance supervisor. Eventually, he became the acting chief engineer, when the chief engineer went to work at the new Jefferson City Correctional Center.

Neal worked at MSP up until the day the inmates were moved out Sept. 15, 2004.

Then, Neal spent 51/2 years as the chief engineer at the new institution, before retiring in 2011.

Retirement didn't keep him away for long. These days, Neal is one of the tour guides leading interested visitors through the walls of the 185-year-old prison.

However, Neal wasn't rushing to come back to MSP after his time away. It actually took the convincing of some friends to get him interested.

"I really didn't want to come back in here with all the buildings torn down, but we had some friends come up, and they said, 'Why don't we go through the prison? You can tell us about different things than the guide,' so we came through, and the guide recognized me as the author of the book."

The book is "Unguarded Moments: Stories of working inside the Missouri State Penitentiary" which Neal published with his daughter, Anita Neal Harrison, in 2014. It's a collection of stories from a new point of view — not a guard or an inmate's story, both of which have also been published, but an employee, or "square man," who spent more personal time with inmates.

The book, and Neal's tour, are full of unique stories about his time working inside the walls of a prison once named "the bloodiest 47 acres in America."

Some are funny, like the pranks he and other employees would play on inmates they worked with, and the pranks they would play in return. Others are more dramatic, like the time Neal was 20 feet away from an inmate who was stabbed to death by another, and he had no idea.

Each area of the tour brings out a personal story from Neal, and he said they can change tour to tour.

"You always try to hit the main elements, but as far as my personal stories, they can vary quite a bit, depending on if I'm running long or short," Neal said.

When MSP resumed tours Oct. 1, following several months of closure after the May 22 tornado damaged the property, Neal gave the first tour.

Clad in his MSP polo shirt and a pair of shorts, Neal's voice filled the tour meeting space in Housing Unit 1, which once held the female prisoners and now serves as the main entrance to the prison, and the empty halls of each building he led his tour through, including the basement of Housing Unit 3, which houses the cells of those who awaited death row.

Also in Housing Unit 3, Neal captures the attention of his tour with the story of the infamous 1954 riot, which claimed the lives of four inmates and caused massive fires across the penitentiary.

In 1985, when a block of six buried cells were discovered between Housing Units 2 and 3, Neal was there, and he even stepped inside them. The Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau hopes to add those cells to the tours in 2020.

It's obvious as you listen to Neal that he knows a great deal about the history of the penitentiary, and he credits part of that to his time there.

"I'd listen to the inmates," Neal said. "A lot of them were older inmates that could talk about the riot and the different things that had gone on in here, and there was just so much history that had gone on in this place."

Neal also tries to impart something he learned on his tour guests — the human element of the prisoners. He said he doesn't feel he had an opinion on prisoners either way before he started, but he knows many people have negative feelings about them. Working at MSP gave Neal a new perspective.

"I know the first week I worked, during that training I sat in the tower with an officer, and he was pointing out different ones, mostly lifers and what they had done, and it just broke my heart to think about how bad people messed their lives up," Neal said.

Neal often worked with prisoners on maintenance jobs and said he formed friendships with many of them. Sometimes between jobs, they would play checkers or dominoes down in the maintenance shop.

"Being back inside, and getting to go inside and getting to go around and show people, and tell people, 'This is what it was like,' and to know that I can tell them things that nobody else knows," Neal said. "To be able to tell them points of history that I witnessed for myself, or things that I saw in here that very few people even think about anymore" is part of the enjoyment of guiding the tours for him.

That experience was almost taken away when MSP temporarily closed after the May 22 tornado. Housing Unit 4 lost its roof, one of the walls fell down and other damage was done to the property.

Neal was worried he'd lost something he really enjoyed, and the city had lost something historic.

"It broke my heart, it really did. Almost like losing somebody you love," Neal said, of learning about the damage. "It was odd. I wouldn't have thought I would've felt that way, but I've had a ball doing these tours."

Related Article

Modified Missouri State Penitentiary tours return for fall

Read more
COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with our commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. Our commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.