In the summer of 1994, O.J. Simpson was fleeing LA in that white Bronco, Michael Jackson married Elvis' daughter, and Forrest Gump was in theaters, causing America to recite annoying catchphrases like, "Life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you're gonna get." But Jeff Mizanskey was figuring out his first few days in prison — a place he was slated to remain for the rest of his life.
After a couple of transfers between prisons, the Missouri Department of Corrections decided Mizanskey, then 41, would serve his sentence in "The Walls," the decrepit Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. First opened in 1836, it was most famous for once housing James Earl Ray, who escaped in 1967 and wasn't heard from again until he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.
By the time Mizanskey arrived, the prison was a moribund, concrete shell that housed much more than prisoners.
"The first night in my cell, I got up on the top bunk, looked up, and saw that the ceiling was moving," Mizanskey recalls.
After a few moments of staring at a flickering glob of black dots, it became clear: "The ceiling was completely covered in roaches."
Mizanskey's requests for an exterminator were politely ignored by prison staff, so he decided to do something about it on his own. All he needed was some baby oil.
"I put some baby oil in a paper cup and stuck a little piece of food, something sweet, in the middle," Mizanskey says. "And I placed that cup on a shelf and roaches would go in it, but then got stuck. When it was full, I put them in the toilet. I'd say about three or four hundred roaches a day."
But no matter how many roaches succumbed to the baby oil, more would come in through the walls of the crumbling penitentiary. Because prison staff wasn't about to fill in any cracks, Mizanskey obtained an extra tube of toothpaste and did it himself. To kill the remainder of the roaches, Mizanskey put laundry sour — a combination of acids used in industrial laundry centers — around the cell.
In those early days of confinement, however, Mizanskey had another, much bigger problem: The other inmates didn't believe him when he said he was doing life just for weed.
"You had to have done something else — what did you do?" they would ask. Suspicions would arise: Had he done something violent? Were children involved? There had to be more than just pot.
"I got in a few fights over it — some people just didn't believe it," he says. "I guess I can't really blame them for that."
Mizanskey's status as a lifer for drug offenses drew the attention of some prison dealers who wanted him to help smuggle drugs in via a dirty guard. Mizanskey refused — and was beaten for it.
The guards wanted to know who did it, but Mizanskey refused to tattle.
"I told them it was a handball accident and that there was no problem with anybody," Mizanskey says. "But that wasn't what they wanted to hear." He landed in the hole.
A few days turned into a few weeks; Mizanskey says he spent about a month in solitary confinement for not giving more details about the supposed handball incident. Once prison officials realized he wouldn't divulge any information, Mizanskey was let back into general population.
"I didn't snitch, so the guys who beat me up knew I was OK, but they still wanted me to do their drug-muling thing," says Mizanskey. He again declined the invitation — not only did he risk more time in solitary if he was caught, but, at the time, he still figured that he had to somehow have some chance at parole. He couldn't jeopardize that.
A member of the drug crew who was in prison for a triple murder decided to make one last pitch using the hardest hard-sell technique.
"He showed me a shank and said if I didn't do it, he was gonna kill me," Mizanskey says.
Mizanskey still didn't go to the guards — that could make things worse in the long run. Instead, he watched his back and tried to stay clear.
And then luck struck: The convicted murderer overdosed and was found dead in his cell.
"After that, the drug crew let me be, found someone else," Mizanskey recalls.
Mizanskey settled into prison life by working at furniture factory inside the prison. Desks, chairs, bookcases, even the podiums that politicians speak from are made at the prison's furniture factory, which relocated (along with Mizanskey) to the newly built JCCC in 2006. A skilled construction worker and supervisor before he was locked up, Mizanskey was promoted to foreman, teaching and supervising workers.
"A lot of people that I taught never had a job before, and they didn't know how to work," Mizanskey says. "That's probably a big reason why they ended up in there in the first place. But a lot of them learned to like it, and they learned some skills they could use."
Although he worked full-time in prison for two decades and led crews, Mizanskey never made more than $1 an hour. That's even though the state sells its prison-made furniture to government offices for lucrative amounts — the going rate for an 84-inch-wide "Judge's Collection" executive desk is currently $1,500.
But among the friends he made were his supervisors — the civilians who help run the factory for the state of Missouri. That includes Tim Allgaier, who worked with Mizanskey for the past three years.
"I was amazed how Jeff could take these guys who had no experience in furniture finishing and teach them how to stain and mix colors," Allgaier says. "He ran his shop like it was his own business. He found ways to save materials, and cut back on cost — even though it was a prison and it wasn't his money, it was state money."
Allgaier and other supervisors advocated for Mizanskey's release with letters to the parole board. And on the day Mizanskey was released, Allgaier was there to congratulate him.
"He's a good man," Allgaier says. "He won't recidivate. He'll probably just get back to work."