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Missouri officials offer tour of prison

June 15, 2018

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — With about 30 people gathered in A Hall at the Missouri State Penitentiary, James “Jellyroll” Cochran pointed up at cell No. 47, recalling memories he had when he called that small space his home for about two years.

The Jefferson City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau moved its three-hour “Mystery Tour — Tour with the Past,” which showcases a former inmate who describes life behind bars at the Missouri State Penitentiary, to Saturdays this year due to its popularity during last year’s inaugural season.

CVB Communications and Film Manager Brittney Mormann told the News Tribune that the tour offers “a more in-depth behind-the-scenes look at what life was like for those living at MSP.”

Along with a former inmate, a tour guide and tour guide assistant accompanies the group. During Saturday’s 9 a.m. tour, former Missouri State Penitentiary warden Mike Groose led the group from building to building, describing the history of the old penitentiary and stories from his time working at the prison.

The Missouri State Penitentiary operated as a prison from 1836-2004 until prisoners were transferred to the Jefferson City Correctional Center. At one time, it was the largest, most violent and bloodiest penitentiary in the United States, Groose said.

Standing outside A Hall, Groose remembers overseeing inmates in “administrative segregation,” or solitary confinement. These were inmates who were considered problems or “the worst of the worst,” he said.

Cochran remembers the exact amount of time he was in solitary confinement — one year and four days — for trying to escape “The Walls.”

Cochran was 19 years old when he first arrived at MSP, but this wasn’t the first time he had heard of the prison. His two brothers had been inmates there, too. While Cochran remembers doing “foolish things” in the prison, he later became a model inmate.

However, the appeal of robberies did not change. He was in and out of the Missouri State Penitentiary and United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, for several years. He nearly spent time at the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Cochran said.

He started rebelling against authority after his father died when he was about 6 years old, he said.

“It was authority that got him killed so from then on, any time authority told me to do something, I did the opposite,” he said. “I always figured they were trying to hurt me.”

After being sentenced for a robbery in St. Louis, Cochran said, he was later charged and sentenced for a liquor store robbery he did not commit.

Once he was released in 1971 following that sentence, he planned his next robbery in retaliation for the liquor store robbery sentence he said he did not commit.

“In my head, someone needed to pay for that,” Cochran said.

Cochran, along with a friend, robbed a bank, leading St. Louis police on a chase, breaking into houses and taking hostages. After evading police for a while, Cochran later turned himself in.

After a jury found him not guilty of three counts of kidnapping, he decided to give up a life of crime.

“That’s when I decided they would never hear my name associated with crime again,” he said, glancing back at his old cell in A Hall.

He has been a free man since 1984, going on to start a business and enjoy 36 years of marriage.

While former inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary may have committed crimes, Cochran said, he hopes people will realize not all of them were bad people, and there is hope for redemption.

“If (people) have any grand kids or something like that, I hope they know it’s never too late to change life around,” he said.

Last year, 195 people attended the three Mystery Tours. This year, Mormann said, they anticipate about 120-150 people since they only allow about 50 people on each tour.

The other tour dates will be July 14 and Sept. 22.

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Information from: Jefferson City News Tribune, http://www.newstribune.com

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