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.

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 happen you didn't hear about," he admits readily. "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."

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.

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, they 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 the day before his suicide, a legislative committee had severely criticized his operation of the penitentiary and called for his replacement.

Wyrick says after that, 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 Globe-Democrat, "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.

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