Larry Neal recalls the lighter side to prison life.

Is there a cheerier side to life behind bars? Former maintenance staff member Larry Neal thinks so. As a longtime employee of the former Missouri State Penitentiary, Larry witnessed plenty of grim and gruesome occurrences. However, he prefers to focus on the more lighthearted encounters he experienced working alongside the inmates on a daily basis. For him, the more human and humorous side of prison life
stems from knowing the inmates as people and hard workers, albeit individuals who had made some pretty bad mistakes.

“You couldn’t tell convicts from your neighbors,” Larry says. “I was really surprised working with them. They had done horrible things, and I’m not sticking up for them. But once you knew them, they were just people.”

Sure, Larry can share stories about the uglier, more violent side of incarceration. There’s the time he was working on a maintenance project on death row and an inmate fatally stabbed another prisoner not more than 20 feet away. Fortunately for Larry, he was on the other side of the wall and didn’t witness the murder firsthand. 

“That side of prison life is real,” Larry says. “But, it’s not the side I like to focus on. I like to point out what people don’t really expect.”

One of his most memorable stories involves Housing Unit 3, two inmates, and a cup of coffee. It was a hot summer day, and Larry was supervising an inmate named Roy as he pulled up leaking toilets in cells in Housing Unit 3. The occupant of one particular cell asked Roy if he’d like a cup of coffee to enjoy while he worked, a gesture of appreciation for fixing the inoperable commode. Roy gratefully accepted the offer. 

While Roy continued his work, Larry watched the other inmate reach into a closet and remove an old sock — blotchy in color, bulky in substance, and coated with what appeared to be a green, slimy material. He dipped the sock into the boiling water he’d made by using a stinger (a homemade water heater). The liquid quickly took on the appearance of a nice, hot, strong cup of coffee. He then offered the finished product to Roy, who hadn’t observed the creation of the drink as Larry had. When the imprisoned barista was out of earshot, Larry advised Roy not to drink the coffee.

“I said, ‘Roy, I wouldn’t drink that coffee if I were you,’” Larry recalls saying. “‘Why,’ Roy asked. ‘Do you know something I don’t know?’”

Larry showed Roy the sock used to make the coffee.

“I thought Roy was going to throw up,” Larry says. 

Roy’s first reaction was to dump the coffee into the sink, which would give away that he didn’t actually drink it because the sink drained into the toilet. Roy certainly didn’t want to offend the cell’s occupant, so he quickly went to work pulling up the toilet and threw the questionable beverage directly into the drainage pipe. Later, upon seeing that Roy was out of coffee, the inmate offered him a second cup. Roy politely declined.

A few minutes later, Larry said he could see Roy shaking his head and muttering to himself.

“I said, ‘Roy, I can’t hear what you’re saying,’” Larry remembers. “Roy answered, ‘You know, if I’m not mistaken, I got a cup of coffee from that dude last week!’”

It’s a story Larry tells to this day when giving tours of the penitentiary, one of Jefferson City’s most popular tourist attractions. Another tale Larry enjoys sharing speaks to the culture inside the walls of the state prison, which housed inmates for 168 years until it was decommissioned in 2004.

Larry says it was commonly known and accepted that the incarcerated men who worked in the food service area would help themselves to leftovers. Then they would use the food items they stole to make sandwiches and other goodies to sell inside the walls. 

One inmate actually ran a thriving restaurant out of his cell. The black-market restaurateur’s set up consisted of a gallon tin can turned upside down over a 300-watt light bulb that got hot enough to cook food. One of his specialties was pancakes, and inmates would often line up to get a stack of flapjacks. Larry also recollects seeing an officer or two in the pancake line.

“Everyone had to hustle and have a way of making money; otherwise they wouldn’t survive,” Larry says. That was especially true if they didn’t have family or friends outside the prison providing financial assistance. The prison had its own economy inside and its own way of life. It was a whole different world inside the penitentiary.”