JEFFERSON CITY—Missouri State Penitentiary Warden Donald Wyrick says he may be a tough cop, but at least he's a fair one. Wyrick took over four years ago this month at the 150-year-old prison here which houses 2,555 men in a building designed for 1,650.
It has been the scene of six slayings and 20 serious assaults during the last year, including one stabbing last week that left an inmate with 283 stitches in his face. Some say the toll would be higher without Wyrick.
"In a maximum-security institution, the warden has to be like the inmates," said Wyrick, still the image of a taut Marine drill sergeant. "If they spot a weakness in you, they take advantage of it. I've tried to be firm, fair and flexible."
Wyrick's toughness and ability to control the inmates inside the huge facility have earned him the grudging respect of even the most outspoken critic of the state prison system.
"Wyrick is the right man in the right prison at the right time," said his boss, Social Services Director James Walsh.
Walsh said he and Wyrick differ on the role of rehabilitation in corrections, but added, "Wyrick is a tough guy who runs a tough institution.
"He's not about to let a guard brutalize a prisoner. But if he needs physical violence to restrain a prisoner, he'll do it," Walsh said, adding there has been no proof of charges of brutality against inmates.
Ann Carter Stith, a St. Louisan who co-chairs the citizens' advisory committee to the state Division of Corrections, regards Wyrick as an honest and likeable man, even though their views on inmate treatment often differ.
"It would be dangerous to remove Wyrick from his post," said Mrs. Stith. "Although he's old-fashioned and custody-minded, I respect the control he has over a facility that is way overcrowded."
The 49-year-old Wyrick, who last took a vacation in 1964 when he went to Kansas for four days, was the first warden to work his way up through the ranks. He went to the penitentiary as a corrections officer in 1959.
During his tenure, the number of inmate slayings has averaged five a year, despite an increase of 900 inmates and no substantial addition to his staff.
"When I first came here, inmates were gentlemen compared to what we have now," the warden said. "Inmates have become younger, more militant and more lazy."
Wyrick is an outspoken advocate of the death penalty, saying it is the only way to stop inmate violence.
"We have inmates here with sentences like 440 years in one case and over 600 years in another. The men come here mad and bitter," he said. "They don't hesitate a minute to kill another inmate—often in front of guards—when they know all they'll get is more years tacked on their sentences."
Walsh, who also favors the death penalty, said he thinks it's the inmates themselves who keep the lid on prison violence—not the threat of execution.
"If it weren't for the fact that most inmates want to serve their time in peace and Wyrick's toughness on the hostile ones, we'd have continual difficulties," Walsh said.
Wyrick and his critics agree the first major step toward easing overcrowded conditions will come with new medium-security prison slated to be built near Pacific.
But the $25-million jail is not scheduled to open until 1981, and continues to be opposed by surrounding residents. So, until then, Wyrick said, he will have to find a way to house additional prisoners within the penitentiary.
Walsh said there should be some relief if planned honors centers become operational in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. But they have been stalled by Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale because of community resistance.
Renovations and remodeling at the Church, Rez and Tipton prison facilities should allow transfer of less dangerous convicts to other sites, Walsh said.
A recent study by the House State Institutions Committee has found mental health services at the penitentiary seriously inadequate. It has no full-time psychiatrist and one psychologist to treat some 2,500 prisoners, and the psychologist claims he even has to do his own typing.
The report recommended the Department of Mental Health immediately examine ways to improve psychiatric services for prisoners including shifting pre-trial examinations out of the Fulton State Hospital to urban jails. That way, the committee said, the Fulton hospital could treat seriously ill patients from the prisons.
But plans for a long-term shift to more rehabilitation and less custodial care for Missouri prisoners seem distant, some say.
State Rep. Deverne L. Calloway, St. Louis, a supporter of prison reform, says, it is unlikely the legislature will change its "niggardly attitude" toward the well-being of inmates.
"There's a notion among the legislators that once a person is convicted and sentenced, he should suffer and know better," Mrs. Calloway said.
Until there is more money to give prisoners the vocational training Walsh wants, the drug-abuse treatment Mrs. Calloway advocates and the psychiatric services Mrs. Stith supports, Warden Donald Wyrick's word is the bottom line.