I was taken hostage in September 1959. I'll never forget it. It was September the 19th, 1959 at 20 minutes past 1 p.m.
Donald W. Wyrick had been a guard at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City only five months when he was taken hostage. Fifteen years later he would become warden—first warden at the prison to have risen through the ranks.
I was working recreation yard that day—a weekend. I spotted three inmates that were acting suspicious. And I knew these inmates because I tried hard to learn when I came here. I talked to the lieutenants and the old-timers and they would point out the tough guys.
Over the years, the warden developed "a feel" for the prison. When the prison is noisy everything is usually all right. When it is quiet, something is usually wrong.
So I knew these guys were acting suspicious. They seemed to be avoiding the officers. I asked two officers to go with me and shake 'em down—search 'em. The officers said, no, we'll wait until we catch them doing something.
The inmates, the guards, the press and the pressure groups have said many things about the warden. No one has called him a coward.
I decided to try by myself. I did and they had a pretty good arsenal. One of them whirled and stuck a homemade gun in my ribs. Another one stuck a homemade gun in my back. And the other one put a straight razor under my chin. The inmates said, "Let's go in this guard shack."
Warden Wyrick has spent 17 years working at prisons. He talks about violence knowledgeably.
The captain saw what was wrong and he circled back and got some officers and shotguns and came down with a gas gun. He fired the gas gun. All of us came out. The officers shot two of the inmates with double-00 buckshot. They didn't kill anyone ...
I thought about death. When they started shooting those shotguns, I sure thought about it because three or four of those bullets went right by my ears like hornets.
They shot one fella as he came out the door. He's dead now. The police killed him in Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years later.
But we came out shoulder to shoulder and they fired the shotgun. He fell at my feet. The artery in his arm was split in two and it just sprayed me. I was just covered with blood—soaked. These things happen so fast you really don't have time to think.
Wyrick, 47 years old, leaned back in chair, twirled a pen in his hands, and stared vacantly at the south wall of his office.
He was trying to explain why he had chosen to spend most of his adult years working in a prison; why he enjoys working with felons, and why he's not afraid of them.
That wasn't easy. Even so, the questions were probably easier for Wyrick to handle than the problems.
The problem is that his prison is 140 years old. It's overcrowded. The guards are underpaid and the turnover is high. Murders are relatively uncommon. But they happen often enough to call the public's attention to them and to him.
The warden's pay is not substantial—about $19,500 annually. He earns that salary by putting in 75-hour work weeks. He hasn't taken a vacation with his family in 12 years.
Various prison reformers, reacting to charges from prisoners, have called for Wyrick's resignation. "With his background he should never have been made warden," said Representative Fred Williams (Dem.), St. Louis. "That man should have been gone."
Others, who were once critical, say they have now come to understand Warden Wyrick.
"I'm not saying he's an angel, but he is trying to do a good job," said Ann Carter Stith, a member of a citizens' advisory committee on prisons. "I changed my mind after a long, long time with Don Wyrick," she said. "He told me the story of his life and I could see both sides."
I was born and raised on a rocky hillside farm about 30 miles from here in Miller County. I was raised up in the Depression years. One pair of shoes a year, you know.
My first contact with prisons was playing semi-pro baseball here. I enjoyed that very much.
The first eight years I went to an old country school. And then, of course, I went to high school and graduated with a class of 17—nine girls and eight boys. Then I went into military service—into the Army ...
I came back and like a lot of other kids you don't know what to do. I started playing country and Western music. I organized my own band. We had a couple of radio shows a week. We didn't make a lot of money but we had a lot of fun, you know ...
Then, since I had been here playing baseball, I got to thinking about this place. And here I am.
Wyrick likes people. It's hard not to like him. His voice is middle Missouri, smooth, familiar and friendly. He said he likes prison work because it gives him a chance to work with people.
Wyrick was 30 years old when he started as a guard at the prison. He caught on quickly, but it wasn't easy.
The prison was in a state of change when I came just after the riots. There were still a bunch of old officers here. Some were in their 70s and they didn't help very much. They felt threatened ...
But I had some good teachers back in those days. One of them was Lt. Atkinson, who was killed.
Lt. Harold Atkinson, 61 years old, was found murdered in a cell Jan. 20, 1975. He had been stabbed 69 times.
He pointed inmates out to me. He pointed out one that you had to watch. He taught me the proper procedures; how to talk with the inmates, how to be firm and fair with them. Never bum rap one. Treat 'em all alike ...
Lt. Atkinson was down the line. He knew. He had been there so long and he was so con wise that he knew when a man was putting a con story on him.
If an inmate needed help Lt. Atkinson would be the first one to help him. On the other hand, if he told the inmate to go to work at 7:30, he meant for him to go to work at 7:30 and not at 8:30. He was firm and he was fair.
Wyrick's progression through the ranks was steady. He was promoted to sergeant in 1960 and placed in charge of the lunchroom. The food wasn't very good and the kitchen wasn't very clean. Wyrick had to handle a lot of fights.
He left the prison for a few years in the middle 1960s to open the Fordland Honor Camp for minimum security inmates. A few inmates walked away from the camp, but that was to be expected. What impressed Wyrick's superiors was that there were no serious assaults at the camp.
Wyrick was called back to the State Penitentiary and made a trouble shooter. That was about the time, Wyrick said, that he acquired the reputation for being one tough prison officer.
I talk to inmates like I talk to you I'm not afraid of inmates. Maybe some people are. But I figure just because a man puts on a gray uniform doesn't make him tough. He's still the same guy he was when he walked in. On the other hand, I don't expect him to be afraid of me either.
Gangs, Wyrick said, more or less ran the prison at that time. It remains unclear how the warden was able to control those gangs. Some prisoners say he meted out justice with the back of his hand. The warden denies this.
I have never struck an inmate except in self-defense or to restrain him if he became violent.
Whatever the case, the warden appears to have the respect of most of the prison population. In random interviews around the prison, inmates complain about prison conditions, but many say things could be worse.
Roger McQueen is serving a life sentence for murder. He said he used to run with a gang, but doesn't any more because the warden "made me retire."
"Back in those days, it was whoever had the toughest gang," McQueen said. "But the warden got his point across to me. If you straighten out, he will help you."
Wyrick was named warden of the prison February 1, 1974 by Corrections Director George M. Camp. Some observers were surprised by the move because Camp and Wyrick were considered to be poles apart in their views of prison management.
Camp was a relative newcomer to the Missouri prison system. Wyrick was an old hand. Camp came from New York in 1973 with a doctorate and new ideas. Wyrick was thought to be resistant to change. Camp is against capital punishment. Wyrick is for it.
But Camp prefers to emphasize the similarities between Wyrick and himself. After all, he said, "We both worked in prisons."
Any expected clash between Camp and Wyrick over prison administration has failed to materialize. Camp said he expected a normal number of complaints about brutality at the prison and he had received them. Meanwhile, he remains steadfast in his support of Wyrick. "You've always got some people who are going to stir the pot," Camp said.
State Representative DeVerne Calloway (Dem.), St. Louis, stirred the pot last year when she called on the United States Department of Justice and Govenor Christopher S. Bond to investigate the penitentiary.
Mrs. Calloway acted after compiling the complaints of more than 100 prisoners. Questions were raised, she said, about possible physical abuse of inmates, racism and mysterious circumstances surrounding several deaths.
Mrs. Calloway said she had been unable to substantiate any of the inmates' allegations. "It's a dark situation," she said. The legislator said she had no doubt some charges could be proved. Even so, she said, "If you are not going to give the next warden anything to work with I don't see any purpose in getting rid of Wyrick. There is brutality. But I can't say Warden Wyrick is the main stimulator of it. It is just the system."
For his part, Wyrick says the problems in the Calloway report have been resolved. The questions have been answered. I don't mind constructive criticism. I think the public has the right to know what you're doing even if it's wrong. I think they mean well. I think they are off base sometimes. They talk before they know all the facts.
The facts are often hard to establish. And once they are established they are hard to understand. Violence is hard to understand.
Let me give you one example.
A man was killed here last November over a can of tomato juice. An inmate stole a can of tomato juice and the officer caught him with it. This inmate got to thinking, "Who could have seen me with that?"
He remembered this fellow—the only one he could remember who had seen him take the juice. The next day he and his partner went down and stabbed him 16 times.
The warden will talk about violence. The prison reformers will talk about violence. But a visitor will see no hint of it. Instead, he is likely to note that the inmates seem friendly and outgoing. That the facilities, if crowded, at least appear to be clean. That the paint on the walls is bright blue—not gray.
It's really hard to explain. I think any veteran prison officer will tell you that you can get the feel of a prison. When the prison is noisy and when prisoners are yelling across the dining room, everything is OK. When the prison gets quiet, when the inmates avoid the officers, you get that feeling that something is wrong. You know something is wrong.
Right now the feeling I get is that inmate morale as a whole is pretty darn good.