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.

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 Joseph and Wainwright been born a decade later, they might never have seen the inside of the state pen, or the likes of Donald "D.W." Wyrick, the legendary figure who strode its halls from 1959-1985. 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.

On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.
Dan Gill
On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.

Wyrick thrived in the Army and sorely missed its regimentation. Then one day he played a baseball game inside the prison walls, 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 come 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 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. "Sept. 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," he finishes. "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.

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