The Boys from Boonville

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

Wainwright didn't have much time to get to know Joseph at Boonville, but necessity soon made them good friends. Wainwright remembers the younger boy as "kind of funny, just a little nerdy kid. We called him Shorty. He was the thinker. He kept us from doing really crazy shit, said, "We can't never get out if we do that!'"

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 17-25. The prison farm comprised 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. But Stanley made things easier, mentally, for the rest of us. Like shoveling coal: He made it into a game, where it was more fun than work. We'd never thought of it like that.

Missouri State Penitentiary
Jennifer Silverberg
Missouri State Penitentiary

"Algoa was hard for me, but it was harder for Stanley," he continues, his voice softening. "I came from a family of religious people. I'd been raised up not to do certain things, and I could tell right away he had, too. Plus, he was not all that aggressive, and he had a harder time because of it."

The older inmates who bunked with them in the open dorms were the new enemies. "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."

What Joseph says about Algoa is that he couldn't sleep there, for fear of dying or being attacked. "I'd go in the bathroom, see a guy bent over and other guys making use out of him like he was a woman. This was going on every day. A guy'd be asleep, his mouth open, snoring, and they would put Magic Shave powder down his throat to choke him. Some of the meanest people I ever met in my life were at Algoa. They would take a 14-year-old kid and run his face into a concrete wall for sport. And if a guy wanted to have sex with a youngster, the guards would arrange a little privacy for them.

"If you got sent to the hole," he continues, "you got two slices of bread and a cup of water for every meal, and one real meal at noon every other day. And you could get sent to the hole if your shoelaces were untied, or your bed wasn't properly made, or you hadn't shaved that morning. They even made us kids shave, and we didn't have nothin' but peach fuzz."

Joseph speaks easiest about what the other kids endured -- "Junior Man," for instance, who was transferred from Boonville to Algoa around the same time, in a different batch of African-American "incorrigibles." In the dead of winter in 1964, Junior Man "was confined in Building No. 6, the disciplinary holding cell -- better known as "the hole,'" recalls Joseph. "The hole was a 5-by-7 concrete nightmare -- no bunk, no mattress, no clothes except for your underwear. It had a commode, but the controls were outside the cell and it got flushed once every 24 hours. No lights. You sleep on the concrete floor wrapped in the piece of blanket they give you when they lock you in. One very cold night, Junior Man and other children beat on their doors requesting that the heat be turned up. The noise infuriated the guards, so they took water hoses and sprayed water on the naked children until they were soaked. Then they opened the windows."

When the story is recounted to Wainwright, he says incredulously, "That was us that got sprayed. We were those children he's talking about. He don't remember that?"

Joseph says it was decades before he let his mind return to Algoa. Then, in 1995, he woke up after a nightmare and remembered "every minute I'd ever spent in Jeff City and Algoa -- every name, every crack in the sidewalk. I could count every brick in the wall."

Shards of private memory continue to break loose, but Joseph is reluctant to take hold of them publicly because of his adult sons. "I know nothing that happened there was my fault," he writes finally, after struggling with a list of questions for more than a month. "But I don't want to say anything that might cast an unacceptably dim light on me in my sons' eyes. If that light gets any dimmer, I fear I won't be thought of at all anymore."

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