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.

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Missouri State Penitentiary

Decommissioned in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. The prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates…