You don’t know what tough is until you get behind the walls of that prison.” 

That’s one of the ways Bill Green describes his experience working as a correctional officer at the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP). Bill was on the job for less than 10 days when he witnessed his first stabbing. 

“We’ve all seen prison life depicted in movies,” Bill says. “I can tell you, that’s completely bogus. When you walk inside that prison, you leave your world, and you enter their world.” 

Bill’s career with the Missouri Department of Corrections began in 1970. He returned home to Mid-Missouri following 28-months overseas. The penitentiary happened to be one of the few places hiring, and  Bill’s career with the corrections department began. 

J.B. Johnson

One heinous MSP tale that Bill tells is the story of J.B. Johnson, who was sent to MSP in 1882 for robbing an acquaintance of $10. During his confinement, J.B. tried to escape from the prison three times without success.  

“If stupidity were a crime, Johnson would have gotten life,” Bill says. 

J.B.’s first escape was thwarted because his cellmate ratted on him. As punishment, J.B. was shackled with a ball and chain, taken to what Bill refers to as the “chamber of horrors,” and severely whipped with a lash. While there’s no account of J.B.’s second attempt to escape, his third attempt took place in February of 1883 and involved 12 fellow inmates who worked in the same factory. They set fire to the factory as a diversion, and the fire spread throughout the prison’s industries. The prisoners were ultimately caught, and J.B. was given the nickname “Firebug.” 

As recourse, J.B. was taken to the dungeon, which was nothing but an empty, pitch-black room with neither a chair nor a bed. He was placed on a starvation diet, which essentially amounted to one meal every three days. Bill has read accounts of inmates dying and going insane in the dungeon, but not J.B. In telling J.B.’s story, Bill delights in noting that J.B. was placed in the dungeon in February of 1883, and records say he was let out in July, leading people to believe Johnson survived a five-month stay. While that is horrifying enough, in reality, J.B. lived under those conditions until July of the next century — 1900. Upon his release from MSP, J.B. traveled from town to town recounting his story as a way to make money. He even wrote a book about his experience titled “Buried Alive: 18 Years in the Missouri Penitentiary.” 

Want to read more of Bill's stories? Read more in Jefferson City Magazine