A temporary position turns into a lifelong career at the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Helping inmates improve their lives and find a better path forward is why Gary Jobe stayed with the Missouri Department of Corrections for more than 32 years. 

A few years after graduating from Lincoln University with a degree in psychology, Gary took a temporary position in the license tag plant located inside the Missouri State Penitentiary. 

“I had no intention of working in a prison,” Gary says. “That was not my highest aspiration. I needed a job and the money and hadn’t got into any kind of career yet. But the longer I was there, the more I liked it. It fit me.” 

Within a couple of weeks into his job, during the night shift, Gary faced one of the most harrowing experiences of his career when all the lights went out in the facility. 

“It just went black,” Gary says. “Nobody knew what was happening. Was it just a blackout? Or had someone sabotaged the electrical system?” 

Luckily, Gary and the other five supervisors working that night had flashlights on them and made it to an office, locking themselves in and fearing the worst. 

“But we never heard a word,” Gary says. 

After about 15 minutes, the lights came back on, and Gary and his co-workers tentatively returned to the factory to find all 200-plus inmates lined up around the interior perimeter, their backs against the wall to protect themselves. 

“We realized it was just a power outage, just an innocent thing, not a setup,” Gary says. “But the inmates didn’t know what was going on either, and they were just as leery as we were. It was kind of hair-raising at the time, but it ended up turning out well.” 

After his temporary factory job ended, Gary accepted a position as a case worker and counselor at the prison, helping inmates to overcome problems and focus on rehabilitation. 

“That work was very rewarding,” Gary says. “The thing that kept me going was that I felt like I was helping the inmates head in the right direction rather than just working to house them and keep them locked down.” 

In addition to his day job, Gary also taught general educational development (GED) classes at night for about five years. This helped the more motivated inmates get their high school diplomas. 

“Some prisoners reach a burnout point,” Gary says. “They realize they are headed in the wrong direction and want to turn things around and rehabilitate themselves and plan for the future. These were the folks who typically found success earning their high school degrees.” 

It was one evening while Gary was teaching a class of about 30 inmates that he experienced another disturbing incident inside the prison walls. As the story goes, there was one prisoner who kept acting out during class. Gary found the young man’s behavior a bit surprising because he was scheduled to be released soon. Up until then, he had always been a good student. Eventually, the inmate finally pushed Gary too far, threatening that when he got out of prison, he would come for Gary. 

As Gary left the classroom to write up the offender, he heard a loud commotion. Upon returning, he and the officer on duty found the inmate trashing the place, turning over tables and chairs and toppling Gary’s desk and file cabinet. Interestingly, the other inmates were just watching him wreak havoc because they didn’t want to get in trouble. The stunt landed the prisoner in “the hole,” also known as administrative segregation. 

“It was a bad situation,” Gary recalls. 

He even had extra locks placed on his home as a precaution; although, there was never any repercussion from the prisoner. Looking back, Gary believes the inmate got into just enough trouble to be away from the general population but not enough to jeopardize his release. That’s because the other inmates would pressure those close to getting out into giving up their personal possessions, such as watches and televisions. For the inmates who were soon to be released, they had to decide either to give up their goods or fight their harassers. 

“If you’re about ready to get out, you want to avoid anything that will impact your release,” Gary says.

Gary eventually left the penitentiary to work for the Department of Corrections central office, retiring in 2008 as a supervisor for Missouri Vocational Enterprises, which helps offenders acquire vocational skills and job skill education. Since 2009, he has been sharing his prison stories and experiences with thousands of people who tour the old Missouri State Penitentiary facility each year. He remains grateful that his temporary prison job turned into a fulfilling career. While Gary acknowledges that he witnessed plenty of unpleasant occurrences throughout the years, the letters he has received from former prisoners touting their accomplishments and thanking him for his help made it all worthwhile.