Remaking a Truant into a Con

David Wainwright’s earliest memories are of the little cakes his mom used to make, and then of her lying down one day, when he was about 7, and dying. “At the time, I thought she was just tired and went to sleep, and I started shaking her,” he says. “To this day I don’t know what happened. Nobody ever took the time to explain it to me.”

The Wainwrights lived in a semirough part of Kansas City; David’s brothers were all older, and his dad was a big, stern man (“You didn’t quiz him”) who worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and was gone often. That left David with his new stepmother for long stretches, and at 15, when he started getting “rowdy,” she wasn’t sure how to handle him. “One day we were on our way to school,” he recalls. “We wanted to go to this baseball game at the old (Municipal) Royals stadium so bad. So I said, ‘Hey, we can walk from here, from 40th and Prospect down to 18th and Brooklyn, and be there in time for the game.’ We made it inside and there was this truant officer — I don’t know where he came from. Fat Sundae (his friend Robert Burns, who always had an ice cream in his hand) still thinks I’m mad at him because he got away — I was the one who ran track! But they caught me and took me to school, and that’s when the trouble started. I’ve never been much of a person to like authority, and they started talking to me, and I kind of — no, I didn’t ‘kind of’ nothing — I got pissed. I said, ‘This is the first time I done anything and y’all gonna try and suspend me?’ And then I got into a fight in the lunchroom, and they did suspend me.”

Next thing he knew, he found himself walking through the heavy doors of the Missouri Training School for Boys (MTS) in Boonville, Mo. One hundred miles east of Kansas City, the residence opened back in 1887 to reform delinquent youngsters ages 10 through 17. By the early 1940s, its reputation was Dickensian. (“When they wanted to punish the boys, they would put them in solitary and grind up their food into garbage,” recalls Ann Carter Stith of St. Louis, a former Kansas City Star reporter who was eventually driven to work for prison reform.)

At Boonville, school “wasn’t pushed,” says Wainwright — at least, not if you were sufficiently big and strong to work the fields. Evenings he spent dodging bullies — such as the massive “Raspberry,” who’d terrified him from day one — or fighting. “They had a little ritual — they’d take you down in the basement and you had to fight the duke of the dormitory,” he recalls. “Either you learned, or you took a whuppin’. At first, I just put my head down and started swingin’; that’s what I thought fighting was about.” Finally another boy taught him technique. “You take a kid, 15 years old, and every day you get him in the basement boxing with people, it becomes part of who you are,” observes Wainwright. “We didn’t think about things, we just reacted: ‘You piss me off, I’ll get your butt.’ The guards used to goad us into fighting with each other, and they’d bet on us.”

One night, he says, “a guard came downstairs and broke up a fight by hitting us with a steel watchclock, and we fought back.” As punishment, Wainwright and several others were sent to the “hole,” which he remembers as “up on the roof, kind of like an old warehouse.” Then he was told that they were being moved. “There was a priest — he’s the one told us,” says Wainwright, his eyes narrowing. “We asked why and he said, ‘Because you’re mess-ups.'”

In March of 1963, Wainwright, then 17, found himself handcuffed, shackled, and thrown on a bus with six other boys. They were being “administratively transferred” to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

“The first thing I saw,” recalls Wainwright, “was a guy being brought out on a stretcher, dead, with a knife in his stomach. Big, muscular guy, a grown man.” He remembers whispering to the others, “We haven’t even gotten into the place yet and they bringing out dead bodies.”

Inside, the boys were strip-searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and assigned inmate numbers. There had been no warning, no hearing, no certification of the 14- and 15-year-olds in the group as legal adults, and no criminal charges had been filed against them, let alone convictions. According to Missouri prison records, all these boys originally were charged with “delinquency,” then transferred to the penitentiary because they were “incorrigible.”

They were also black. And in the next two weeks, they saw two more groups of juveniles processed into the penitentiary, not a white boy among them.

The Missouri State Penitentiary had been branded “the bloodiest 40 acres in America” when a 1954 riot left five men dead, scores of guards injured, and seven buildings burned. Nine years later, 3,400 prisoners were jammed inside the Gothic limestone, gun-turreted walls — more than double the number it was built to house. “It was a very dangerous place,” concedes Department of Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest. “It was the only maximum-security prison in the state, so they had nowhere else to send people. Now you can hone in on how violent they are and house the most predatory together. But back then they had barely any classifications.”

In 1963, the year these boys arrived, three adult inmates were killed within 24 hours, prompting an investigation by Democratic state Rep. Peter J.J. Rabbitt of Shrewsbury. He called the place a “medieval twilight zone,” noting that in the previous 15 months, there had been 212 acts of violence serious enough to require hospital treatment.

“They put us all in H Hall,” Wainwright says, “but they split us kids up. It was damp and real dark in there, like a cave, and at first I thought they were putting me in an empty cell. I was thinking, ‘Okay, okay, I’m all right.'” Then his eyes adjusted to the 25-watt bulb, and he saw the outline of an older man’s hunched shoulders. Nicknamed “Undertaker,” his new cellmate was probably middle-age, but to Wainwright he “seemed like an ancient old dude, some fossil sitting there in the dark. He started telling me all these stories, ’cause he’d been there before, back in the ’40s. He told me, ‘You’re gonna have to fight while you’re here.’ And he kind of looked out for me when they come in with that sexual shit. I wasn’t gonna be no punk (the prison term for a submissive homosexual partner). I had too many fights at Boonville about that shit.”

According to Department of Corrections records, the boys spent about a month at the pen, then were transferred again. “By the time (President John) Kennedy was killed, we were all shoveling coal at Algoa,” recalls Wainwright. Eight miles east of Jefferson City on the loamy bank of the Missouri River, Algoa was the young men’s reformatory, intended for inmates ages 17 through 25. The prison farm was composed of 776 acres of state-owned land, dotted with a Holstein dairy herd and streaked with the muddy tracks of five bloodhounds trained to track escapees. “‘Goa was actually worse,” says Wainwright, “because it was a lot of young guys, 20, 21 years old. The older guys at the pen were more inclined to look past you.

“They had fields where you worked,” he recalls. “Told me I’d be bucking hay — I said, ‘I came from the projects — we didn’t even have grass!'” He laughs out loud, still urban to the core. Then he mutters, “I never knew mules could be that mean.”

The older inmates who bunked with them in the open dorms were the real enemies, though. “I kept fighting,” Wainwright says ruefully. “You had to fight or the adults would use you. And I wasn’t gonna let anybody do that, not if I could help it. Three of us got … mistreated. I’ve always kept that to myself. You kind of felt responsible — we tried to protect each other as much as we could. But we were just kids, man.”

In the sepia-tone photos taken in the 1890s, the Missouri Training School for Boys looks like a cross between a Southern military college and a particularly nice insane asylum. Set amid rolling hills and embarrassingly lush orchards, the brick buildings imply restraint, discipline, and order. In 1933, an MTS Plant and Needs report described the structures with a candor that comes only when capital improvements are being sought: “Most of them have good lines and from the outside have a dignified and restful effect. Inside they are bleak, bare, unlivable.”

With the establishment of the Board of Training Schools in 1948, the institution’s punitive tone finally softened, at least in theory. Emphasis fell on education — which meant that troublemakers had to be plucked from the ranks. Alas, there were no alternative residences for “hardcore” juveniles, and under Missouri’s indeterminate-sentence law, these kids had to be kept until they turned 21 or could be pronounced reformed. So the staff began deciding who the “incorrigibles” were, then shipped them off to adult prisons with neither charge nor hearing.

In 1967, four years after Wainwright’s group was transferred, reporters and legislators began to scrutinize MTS, which was then crowding nearly 600 children into a facility built for 350. “It’s not a rehabilitation center like it should be,” state Rep. E.J. “Lucky” Cantrell (D-Breckenridge Hills) told the St. Louis GlobeDemocrat (July 22, 1967). Then he added, with unwitting irony, “I’d say it’s almost as bad as if the kids were put in the state penitentiary.”

Cantrell (who himself was convicted of embezzling union funds in 1990), says he never heard about the practice of transferring “incorrigibles” to adult institutions. Yet as chair of the House appropriations committee, he spent considerable time at MTS, bringing a fact-finding team to investigate disturbing reports about the school’s operations. “A lot of the kitchen help were kids from the facility,” he recalls, “and kitchen duty was punishment, so they would spike the food — urinate in it, spit in it. The dormitories were overpopulated; they didn’t have enough staff to properly discipline the kids; and their methods — they’d put ’em on work details that were degrading, for an excessive amount of time, for some small infraction. It was … chaotic. I also saw several kids whose problems seemed to be mental, not behavioral.”

After photos of cots jammed 2 inches apart hit the newspapers, public officials began to say MTS should be replaced by smaller schools so that intensive counseling (the great new hope) could replace uselessly harsh punishment. “Courts are apparently using the institution only as a last resort,” reported the St. Louis GlobeDemocrat on Dec. 18, 1967, noting that in the preceding year, the average number of juveniles sent to MTS each month had dropped from 48 to 26. However, there had been no corresponding decline in the juvenile crime rate; instead, it had jumped 30 percent. But judges were refusing to send kids to Boonville. Judges complained about inadequate aftercare, and, indeed, MTS had only 12 placement officers to supervise 800 boys on parole. But W.E. Sears, the director of training schools, quickly pointed out that Boonville had no place to segregate the older troublemakers from the younger boys they were trying to rehabilitate.

For those “troublemakers,” there were “adjustment units”: 14 small, dingy cells — no mattresses because the boys would tear them up, no ventilation to move the foul air. Two of these cells had no beds or bathrooms; they were reserved for youngsters “who go berserk,” an officer told the Globe, whose reporter investigated further and found a 15-year-old who’d violated an institutional regulation locked in an adjustment unit simply because the other cells were filled.

Bureaucrats made noises about reform, but nothing much happened — until one of the boys transferred from Boonville filed a lawsuit.

Back in April 1966, 14-year-old Frank Allen Boone had been found “delinquent by reason of petty larceny and trespass” and sent to Boonville. MTS records indicate that he was a “Negro.” They also say that in late July, “as the boys were going downstairs to change clothes for church, Frank was involved in a fight.” The school’s Classification Committee promptly recommended that he be transferred, “should his aggressive and assaultive behavior continue.” In September, Boone “created a disturbance in the dormitory after bedtime” and “threw pillows at the supervisor when another boy turned off the lights.” The Classification Committee again recommended transfer, calling him the “ringleader” in “gang activities.”

Despite the request, Boone stayed at MTS through the winter of 1967. Then a more serious incident was logged: A staff member said that some of the boys said Boone had tried to force them into sodomy. On Feb. 3, the committee voted unanimously to transfer him, saying “all efforts have failed” and insisting he be kept in restriction until he was transferred.

Boone was sent to Algoa, transferred to Moberly, then transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary. From there he wrote Phillip Fishman, then a 28-year-old lawyer with the St. Louis Legal Aid Society. Fishman opened the pencil-scrawled, misspelling-riddled letter — and decided to take the case.

Judge James T. Riley of Cole County sat through Fishman’s arguments, asked, “Do you have anything more?” and waited. When Fishman said, “No, Your Honor,” Riley pounded his gavel. “You lose.”

Fishman appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. “One week after the appeal was lodged,” he says, “I got a telegram saying the court had taken the matter on en banc (all nine judges would hear the case) and sped up the calendar.” Why the urgency? “The significant issues,” Fishman retorts. “There were 37 other kids in the penitentiary who didn’t belong there.”

Boone’s lawsuit named a long list of state corrections officials, including John C. Danforth, Missouri’s attorney general at the time, as the formal representative of the Department of Corrections. Danforth was only nominally involved and says he doesn’t remember the case, but he cosigned a brief that argued that Boone’s case was irrelevant because he had been released from the penitentiary; that the Legislature hadn’t provided enough resources to handle incorrigibles within the system; and that “something has to be done to isolate these incorrigibles from the others.”

Fishman had great fun responding, using everything from related U.S. Supreme Court precedents to common sense (“How do you send a kid to the penitentiary for a pillow fight?”). On Feb. 8, 1971, the Missouri Supreme Court found “administrative transfer” unconstitutional, calling it “a denial of equal protection and due process.” Writing the majority opinion, Justice James A. Finch Jr. added that the Board of Training Schools had exceeded its authority by sending juveniles to institutions where the juvenile court never could have placed them.

The decision was close — a 5-4 split — and it set an important legal precedent nationwide. Missouri wasn’t the only state transferring “incorrigibles”: Iowa, Tennessee, and several other states followed the same practice (although their criteria for incorrigibility may have differed). Massachusetts, on the other hand, expressly forbade the practice, and at least seven other states required a judicial hearing before such a transfer. Because the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to address the question of constitutionality, other states avidly read the Missouri Supreme Court decision, which stopped the practice cold.

No one mentioned the odd coincidence that, although Boonville’s population was reportedly more white than black, the boys branded “incorrigible” were nearly always black. (Disproportional punishments continue: In California, researchers recently found that minority youths were much more likely than white youths to be transferred to adult courts and more likely to be sentenced to prison for comparable crimes.)

At MTS, Wainwright says, “They used to send white kids into T Company (a dormitory building for black boys) when they wanted to punish them, but they never transferred them.” The staff was predominantly white (183 of 200 employees), and five of the six board members had been criticized since the late ’60s as rural, white old-timers, clueless about the racial tensions of urban life.

After the Supreme Court decision, half the MTS board was asked to resign, and the short sentence about transferring “incorrigibles” was deleted from the standard MTS entry in Missouri’s Official Manual. By September of 1971, Danforth was urging the immediate closing of MTS and the abolition of its board, proposing “a new philosophy” that would bring the kids back home and place them under probationary supervision.

Meanwhile, Fishman was still trying to reach Boone, to send him a copy of the victory. Before the case concluded, the boy had been released from prison, and all Fishman had was the prison address from his original letter. “He never did write to say thank you or anything,” notes the lawyer, sounding hurt.

Maybe he never knew the case had been tried and won, suggests Wainwright, who had never known there was a Supreme Court case. Trying to absorb the news, he asks over and over, “Why didn’t anybody ever tell us? Nobody ever said anything to me about it until now. Why didn’t anybody tell us?”

In 1973, a full decade after Wainwright’s incarceration, the Board of Training Schools was asked to develop a comprehensive strategy for Missouri’s delinquent youth. The resulting Confidential State Plan said that although “traditional training schools may have at one time been effective,” they could no longer meet the needs of a complex society. The plan applauded MTS staff for realizing back in 1967, when there were 692 boys at MTS, that many “were being damaged beyond any possibility of emotional repair” and setting out to find alternatives. Now the plan recommended that Boonville be gradually eliminated. Group homes began opening across the state, siphoning the boys from Boonville and shaving MTS’ population down to 150.

Ironically, the place had never run better. “They’d gotten rid of the more hardcore youth, sent them to the Department of Corrections, and started doing more treatment,” explains Glenwood Einspahr, who came in 1970 as assistant director. “Our average age was 15.8, average length of stay was less than six months, and there were never more than 200 boys there at a time. The old methods — the old behavior modification with token reinforcement — were phased out.” Instead, the state contracted with Positive Peer Culture, a group-therapy program developed in New Jersey. Soon there were “cottage treatment teams,” and if kids got into fights, Einspahr says, “it was the group’s responsibility to hold ’em down. They were taught how to restrain somebody without hurting him, until he got himself in check.”

With fights neutralized, what were the new criteria for transferring a boy to the penitentiary?

“Well, you’d have to refer ’em back to the courts, and that never happened very much,” says Einspahr. “In fact, after the group-therapy program came in, I can’t remember that ever happening.”

Ten years later, MTS had obediently phased itself out of existence, and Boonville had become an adult correctional facility.

Had Wainwright been born a decade later, he might never have seen the inside of the state pen or met the likes of Donald “D.W.” Wyrick, the legendary figure who strode its halls from 1959 to 1985. Wyrick had grown up rough on a rocky farm in the Ozark hills, in a little town called Tuscumbia on the Osage River. His dad was a bootlegger, and Wyrick saw “a lot of stabbing and killing back in those hills. It was a way of life.” He saw more of the same when he played banjo in honky-tonks — and then he saw a new kind of combat, disciplined and procedural, when he steered amphibious landing craft onto the beach of Guadalcanal at the end of World War II. Wyrick thrived in the Army and sorely missed its regimentation. Then one day he visited the prison, sensed the same kind of structured intensity, and decided he might like working there. Starting as a guard, he rose to become warden, then the director of the division of adult institutions, and he remembers plenty of teenagers who came through in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Fourteen- and 15-year-olds? Sure. Some were as young as 7 and 8. A big bunch of my inmates came from Boonville. A lot of ’em didn’t have any family life to speak of. The teachers couldn’t do anything with ’em, the truant officer couldn’t do anything with ’em, and then I got ’em, and I was supposed to straighten ’em out in two years.”

Did the 1971 Supreme Court decision change anything? “Yeah, they had to have another hearing and all that. I didn’t pay that much attention to it.” Were the kids a problem, mixed into the adult population? “They’d been around. They were as tough as the old-timers were; they could take care of themselves.”

Wyrick was tough himself, paternalistic, as impulsive as the inmates, and often surprisingly fond of them. His initials were carved by inmates into a handmade leather wallet he carried for 16 years; his full name appeared in scores of brutality lawsuits. He used to bring his kids to the pen for piggyback rides on the inmates’ broad shoulders; he also brought his dog, a German shepherd-Doberman mix named Hitler by his first owner. Wyrick never changed the name.

“Never had a thought of fear in my life,” he remarks, describing with relish the time he was taken hostage in the prison yard. “September 19, 1959, 1:30 p.m. I’d been watching these three or four inmates moving from person to person, and then I saw ’em digging something out of the ground. I went to a couple other officers and said, ‘Let’s go get those guys and shake ’em down.’ They said, ‘Wait till they do something,’ but I wasn’t gonna.”

He went after one of the men, and three others emerged to block him. “One put a straight razor under my jaw, one put a big knife in my ribs, and Rollie Laster put a homemade gun against my back. He and six other guys had gotten life for killing an inmate, a snitch, in the 1954 riot; they caved his head in with a sledgehammer. Rollie’d kill you in a flat minute. In later years we got to be friends, though. He’d aged, mellowed — I saw it happen hundreds of times.

“Anyway, the tower officers saw what was happening, and two or three guys came down with shotguns, shot a couple of ’em all to hell. One of ’em, I took care of him myself, knocked his teeth out. He picked ’em up and put ’em in his pocket. That’s the way things were in those days.”

In just one year, Wyrick was promoted and sent to the dining hall, a hot spot prone to riots. “One day I saw a man come in with a rolled-up newspaper,” he recalls. “I made a mental note to remind him, after the meal, that newspapers weren’t allowed. And then I saw him pull out a meat cleaver, walk over to an inmate who’d threatened to kill him, and slice straight down into his head, then again crosswise, quartering it.

“What people don’t know is, a lot of times in prison, it’s kill or be killed. People have lost their lives over a pack of cigarettes in there.” Wainwright uses almost the same words: “I’ve seen people get their necks broke over a fuckin’ pack of cigarettes.” A bitter rage coils beneath the second man’s words, but for Wyrick, trying to thwart the violence was “kind of a game. You had to use every trick you could think of. We would never knowingly let two homosexuals live in the same cell, but what I did do — and I was criticized for it — I’d let their punk move next door.” Then, if Wyrick needed information about drugs or a violent incident, he’d move the guy away in the middle of the night to encourage the dominant inmate to talk.

He also used what he calls “the carrot and the stick,” improving recreational programs, food, health care, education, and visits. Gradually, the violence ratcheted down a peg or two, but it didn’t disappear. “We found one guy laying there naked; he’d been stabbed over and over and over — 50, 60 times, I guess,” recalls Wyrick. “A piece of iron pipe was still sitting there, and you could see his brains outside his head. He wore dentures, and one of his plates was sticking out the side of his jaw.

“I had two officers killed,” Wyrick continues. “One was stabbed 69 times, both his eyes gouged out. The other one was stabbed through his liver, and he drowned in his own blood. It was supposed to be me.” An inmate had smuggled in a diamond ring, he explains, promising a less-bright inmate, “I’ll give you this ring if you kill Wyrick.” “So he went in with two 15-inch butcher knives and tried to kill Cliff Wyrick, who was my uncle.”

What about rape? “There was a lot of it happening that you didn’t hear about,” he readily admits. “We’d prosecute them if we could, but it was hard to get a jury who didn’t think, ‘Oh, that stuff always happens in prison.’ I’ve seen ’em where that has happened to them and it completely ruined their lives, turned ’em vicious.”

Wainwright says that at the pen, rape happened anywhere — “in the gym, in the TV room, in front of other inmates and guards.” Inmates didn’t try to stop it — “you could get killed for that” — and guards made it clear that “that wasn’t their job. I saw one watch a guy get stabbed and not do anything. We used to go down to the death house, because it was the safest place. We couldn’t go to the TV room — they were killin’ each other up there. But the death house was cool, and the guards wouldn’t come down there. It was a brick building down in the prison yard, with a brick cross embedded in the ground, and they had the actual chamber inside; you could go and sit in the chair.” He draws a long breath. “When you look back, it’s like, ‘Man, how did I keep any of my sanity?’ I think we all got a little sick. Once a guy was getting stabbed right near me and the thing I was really worried about was getting blood in my food. Death became friendly, it was there so much.”

In the ’60s, all the pen’s African-American prisoners lived in a single rotted, crumbling building. “In those days, nobody cared,” Wyrick remarks. “Where all the blacks was, A Hall, it held about 1,000 men, six to eight in each cell. There was hardly room to move. They just crowded ’em up. We only had four black officers, out of 300 or better. I worked that hall alone with 1,000 blacks, and you know, they weren’t as hard to control as the whites. I don’t know why; seemed like they were more respectful. They worked good. Some of ’em came from down in cotton country and they were used to bein’ bossed around.”

In June 1964, warden Elbert V. Nash decided to close A Hall. As an experiment, he allowed 11 of these residents to move into the all-white F and G halls. On June 9, the 11 prisoners were returning from the prison yard, headed for their new bunks, when a dozen inmates jumped out wearing pillowcases with holes cut for their eyes. Slashing with knives, they killed one man and seriously wounded three more. In seconds, the walls of the formerly all-white building were spattered red.

“Nash, he had good intentions, but he went about it the wrong way, sending in just a few blacks,” remarks Wyrick. “One guy, good old inmate, they called him Cadillac, the knife went completely through him — it was stickin’ through his back, but he lived.” Cadillac outlived the warden, in fact. That December, Nash came home from the Department of Corrections Christmas party and shot himself in the head. Not only was he struggling with family problems, but also the day before his suicide, a legislative committee had severely criticized his operation of the penitentiary and called for his replacement.

Wyrick says that after that incident, the real race trouble started, in the shape of Black Muslims. “It was a different ball game then. They got a clique of their own down on the yard, doing calisthenics and military drills. We knew we had to stop that.” (When the comment is repeated, Wainwright nods. “I can understand why. I was one of them for a while. They wanted us to join because we were radical youngsters; we would fight. But they taught us hatred, and I couldn’t figure out what was the difference between that and what the whites did.”)

Prison officials strenuously denied the existence of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in those years, but the white-supremacist inmates networked. And then the tables turned. “Negro inmates began to collect in groups,” reported the St. Louis GlobeDemocrat, “and followed the leadership of those who advocated black supremacy.” In most cases, fear only made the guards angrier, their retribution swifter. “‘Nigger, do this.’ ‘Nigger, do that,'” quotes Wainwright. “‘Nigger, shut up and sit down — we will do what the fuck we want with you.’ (Prison officials) used to give the Aryan Brotherhood guys furloughs if they’d take care of some black guy who’d made them mad, because the Aryan Brotherhood did not want ‘mud people’ around.

“There was a good ol’ boy system that was serious. A lot of guys couldn’t get good time (reduced sentences) because of the color of their skin; they weren’t allowed to give blood or do flood details. I’ve seen guards make guys get naked and stick their noses in each other’s ass and crawl across the yard.” Looking down, Wainwright shakes his head in a slow arc. “And they wonder why people have such bad attitudes.”

In April 1967, James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary, and a year later he assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. “I worked on the dock he’s supposed to have escaped from, and I still can’t figure out how he got out,” exclaims Wainwright, describing where each guard was stationed. “Man, there was no way.” Wyrick could’ve eased his mind: “James Earl Ray hid in a breadbox, a big ol’ wooden box it took two people to handle. They’d bake bread and send it out to the prison farms on a truck. The officer didn’t shake it down like he should have.”

In 1973, Wyrick, then associate warden (“He was always the warden,” mutters Wainwright), was given the job of desegregating the penitentiary. “First I went down to Louisiana to see how Angola had done it,” he recalls. “Then I came back and talked to some of the old-time inmates, all of ’em lifers. By then the inmates were all making weapons openly, right in front of the officers — they didn’t care. Had the grinders going and the sparks were flyin’, making knives and spears. Finally I decided, ‘We’re going to lose the place if we don’t get these weapons out of here.’ So I locked the place down, and we filled a barrel with 700 weapons, iron pipes, clubs, spears….”

The next year, he became warden. The year after that, he was accused of beating five inmates during a disturbance. Wyrick laughed off the charges, saying, “Things like that happen around here all the time” (St. Louis GlobeDemocrat, Oct. 24, 1975). But allegations continued, and in 1984, a jury awarded $90,000 in damages to a prisoner who had to be hospitalized for four days. “He claimed I abused him, which I didn’t,” says Wyrick. “He had a few knots on his head, but he got them in a riot up at Moberly. We got a bad jury, and they believed him.”

“I got sued all the time,” he sighs, explaining that in the ’60s, inmates (who’d previously been considered civilly dead) were granted the right to sue, and by the time he took over as director of the division in 1984, their cases had grown increasingly preposterous. “I got tired of spending all my time in federal court, so I retired early.”

Still lean, and fit enough to fool his doctor about his chain-smoking, Wyrick lives with his wife in a tidy apartment on the woodsy outskirts of Jefferson City. Surrounded by pictures of 16 grandchildren, he spreads other photos for show-and-tell, arranging them on a crocheted antimacassar: one of a slain guard, eye gouged bloody. Three of wounded guards, khaki uniforms spattered red. One of him with Tammy Wynette, one of the country-western singers he brought in to entertain the inmates. Three of contraband guns he seized himself, one of them a homemade masterpiece of balsa wood hidden in a hollowed-out law book. “Looks real, don’t it? He was doing eight lives last time I counted.”

Wyrick says he often runs into inmates when he works security for the prison hospital, and he says they beg him to come back. “Nobody knows where they stand anymore,” he explains. “I spent time with those inmates, making them do what they were supposed to do. I’d run home, grab a sandwich, and then go back for the evening, listen to maybe 50 inmates’ problems. They don’t do that anymore. They don’t have somebody they can come to who will make a decision.

“Of course, if I went back now I’d last about three days, two of ’em on suspension. The officers now are pretty well abused. HIV-positive inmates throw urine and feces on the officers to make ’em think they’re going to get AIDS, and the officers are scared to do anything back. That’s one thing I did not tolerate, boy, was officers’ being abused. I told my officers, ‘It’s a given that the inmate’s gonna get the first swing. But I expect you to win.'”

Told that his old nemesis is still alive, Wainwright chuckles long and low. “I wonder, would he ever tell the truth.” Reminded that Wyrick is older now, he drawls, “Yeah, conscience. He might actually have one of those.” Then he draws a sharp breath. “We were nothing to them. Wyrick, he was like Adolf, he had his own country. Jesus Christ, that man ran the whole system. Any institution, he could go do whatever he wanted to whoever he wanted.”

Paroled from Algoa on April 24, 1964, Wainwright wound up back at the penitentiary five years later, charged with robbery. “When I went home, I wasn’t scared of prison anymore,” he shrugs. “My manhood had been tested constantly. I’d learned how to hurt people. What do you use to scare a kid with after that? You want to send me back to jail? Okay, I’ll go back and see my friends.”

“Prison made me mean,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie about it — it made me mean. Fighting was all the time, every day. Some of the fights were bad, and some were not, but someone was always blooded. You lived on raw instinct — ‘Do this to me and I’ll do this to you’ — knowing you will die if you do the wrong thing. And knowing that everyone wants to make a woman out of you if you can’t look out for yourself.

“When I came home, I couldn’t play with nobody. I still wanted to play, weird as it sounds. I’d never gone skating, hadn’t started drinking or smoking — although by that time, I was ready to try anything. I’d been hearin’ about all that stuff for years and acting like I’d done it, but I never had.

“You know I had never had sex? Here I was with this big body, people afraid of me, I’m supposed to be tough. It was like, ‘Man, what do I do now?’ You don’t want to have to ask that question. Finally my friend Robert’s sister told me what a virgin was. She said, ‘Boy, you’re pitiful — you a grown-ass man and you don’t know?’

“Before, all I wanted to do was run track. That was my release.” He draws a long breath. “That kid who hung out with his friends and ran everywhere he went — he died in there. By the time I came out of prison, I could not like people; I could not trust people. I was like some kind of wild animal turned loose. Even my friends would tell me, ‘Man, there’s something wrong with you.’ I hated my father for putting me in there and my stepmother for helping. I went to live for a while with Sundae’s mama, and then, instead of following my brothers into the Army, I went to the streets.

“For a long time I believed all whites were bad. I straight-out hated them, and no one could tell me I was wrong because of what was done to me. ‘You have made me how I am,’ I thought, ‘so deal with it.’

“I tried,” he says abruptly. “I fell in love, and she got pregnant, and I married her. I kept trying to get a job — at the Chevrolet place, at a couple hamburger joints — but I was just the wrong kind. When people would find out I had a record, I’d say, ‘Look, I just didn’t want to go to school,’ and they’d say, ‘People don’t go to prison for playing hooky.’ Eventually I stopped trying to explain; I just said, ‘I had a burglary case.’ They accepted that better.

“I still couldn’t find a job, though, and we had that baby coming. I had to do something. So I started hustling — snatched a bank bag and got caught.”

Wainwright went back to the pen and then to Moberly, where he learned the fine points of forgery — his next charge. Released in 1972, he worked for the Kansas City parks and recreation department, worked as a cook at the airport, did welding jobs offshore for Shell Oil. His job choices were limited, because he’d never finished high school — not even at MTS, which used to boast about its classrooms. “Once they showed us a movie,” he recalls, “and I asked, ‘How come there were no black cowboys? Where’d we all go?’ The guy said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And then he hit me, ‘cuz I kept asking.”

“I was no angel,” Wainwright admits, well aware he’d been agitating. “I’ve never been arrested for anything violent, never wanted to hurt anybody, but I’ve had a propensity for violence all my life. There are things I will not let you say to me, things I will not let you do to me.”

In 1986, Wainwright, recently divorced, went back to prison for forgery and burglary, a 10-year sentence. While he was inside, his son, Kirt Wainwright, was arrested for robbing two convenience stores and killing the clerks. Wainwright blamed himself. “I didn’t know how to be a parent,” he says simply. “Maybe if I ever got a chance to learn something beside all the prison shit, I would have known that being home was more important than giving him money. I should’ve been there myself, to tell him, ‘Man, this is what you don’t do.'”

His son went on death row, and Wainwright was transferred from Cameron to St. Joseph to fight the Great Flood of ’93. There he met the second woman in his life, the staunchly upright Mildred Cooper. She drove a food-delivery truck; he was a cook at the state hospital. They fell in love, and he soon realized that Cooper — sympathetic, loyal, and bossy — was the polar opposite of the woman he’d married at 19. She kept him honest, and so, to his surprise, did two of his fellow cooks, both white.

“Henrietta and Katie, they helped me here,” he says, tapping his forehead.

Hearing this, Henrietta Groce smiles. When Wainwright first came to cook with them, he was an inmate. “They told us he was hotheaded,” she recalls. “But we found him to be different. We joked with him and taught him different things we cooked — casseroles, all different kinds of salads. He liked the way we all worked together. He never thought us white women would treat him like we did, treat him just like we were. We played country music all the time, and at first he said, ‘That ain’t my music!’ but pretty soon we got him hooked on Toby Keith.”

Wainwright left prison in 1994, got a job down the street at the Beverly Manor nursing home, settled down with Cooper, and even took up fishing. “It’s really strange — I don’t even eat fish; I turn ’em loose,” he shrugs. “Mildred says, ‘What’s the sense in going?’ But I want to live out what’s left of my life kind of peaceful.”

He was well on his way. Then came word from Arkansas: His son’s lawyer needed money to fight the death sentence. Wainwright set aside Cooper’s admonitions and dug out his forgery pens. “I’ve been locked up so many times,” he shrugs. “Taking the money was what his lawyer needed.”

In January 1997, despite the last-ditch appeal, Kirt Wainwright was executed in Arkansas. Newspapers wrote lurid accounts of how he and two other death-row inmates were transferred to the concrete-block “death house,” that state’s version of the place in which his father had sought refuge from guards and older inmates. Relatives weren’t allowed to be present at the execution, but Wainwright later learned that his son lay there for an hour before the execution, strapped to a gurney with the IV line already in his vein, while a panel of judges deliberated one more time. They finally voted 6-4 to proceed.

“I wake up in the middle of the night and I see that boy lying there,” says Wainwright. “I see the boys who died in the penitentiary and they called it suicide. I see Mama, and I wonder why I’m still here. Why didn’t God take me and not them? I’m the one who’s been messin’ up. Spent my fuckin’ life in prison. I’m laying there at night and it all comes back — they’re right there, and I wonder why I’m carrying them.”

He slides back the molded-plastic chair in the visiting room of the Western Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, where he awaits release on his most recent forgery conviction. Glancing toward the shadow of the guard waiting just outside the door, he leans forward on his cane (the legacy of a recent car accident) and says heavily, “I wish my life would have been something better. I do believe I’ll be okay now — but it’s almost over.

“It’s not physical anymore. Now the whippings are all in your head. But even the guards are different. This guard here” — he gestures to a friendly officer in his early 30s who’s just come on duty — “he doesn’t have the potbelly, he doesn’t smoke cigars, he doesn’t hit you with shit. I tell these young guys all the time, ‘Y’all have no conception of what prison is like.’

“A lot of the younger guys come and talk to me, but who do I talk to when things are busting my head?” He looks out the window, eyes clouded. “I want to learn how to stop the bad dreams, have some quiet in my soul.”

A few seconds later, he turns back from the window. “I am still trying to forget the things I have seen in prison,” he says quietly. “We worked on the state dock where they brought the bodies through, so we got to see a lot of things we shouldn’t have seen. Like the boy who they said killed himself — somehow with his arms and legs broken got up onto a meathook, and the door of the freezer was locked on the outside. But they said he did it, how I don’t know.”

“It was another time, another world,” he finishes wearily. Then, in a flash, he changes his mind. “For me, it’s the same world. This is not history to me. This is memory.”

This article first appeared in the Riverfront Times. Contact Jeannette Batz at 314-615-6666.

In 1963, a group of African-American runaways and truants was sent to a rural reform school. Then the nightmare began.


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