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The life and death of Renz Prison

The abandoned prison that still stands outside Jefferson City reminds passersby of its eerie past

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Heading toward Jefferson City on Highway 63, you can see the old water tower before any other part of the building. In the early morning, when the sun hasn’t yet burned off the fields’ mist, the imposing white block of cement sits eerily among the soybeans. The mist still lingers around busted out windows and creeping ivy. It clearly used to be something. It’s exactly the kind of place an idiot in a horror movie would wander into, and it’s not hard to see why some people think the building is haunted.

There aren’t many remnants of what it used to be, no sign outside the building to explain the institutional 3-story amid the crops.

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, Renz and the surrounding farmland, nearly 500 acres, was sold for $500,000 to the Smart family. With their purchase the family obtained a building full of two things: history and asbestos.

The land expanded the Smart family’s crop production, but the prison has become a source of frustration and sometimes loss. What once was one of Missouri’s most productive facilities is now a roadside hazard and a magnet for trespassers.

Footnotes in the history books

The main building of Farm No. 2, the original prison name, was built in 1926. Inmates, who tended livestock and worked within the building’s concrete walls, farmed the fertile floodplain surrounding the institution.

Col. Paul V. Renz, a farm manager turned prison director who managed several work farms in the area, oversaw the land. Farm No. 2 and Church Farm, now the Central Missouri Correctional Center nine miles northwest of Farm No. 2, were the largest tracts under his direction.

Col. Renz received national recognition in the agricultural and correctional world for his management of the farms. He produced most of the food needed for the inmates on his farms. The Macon Chronicle-Herald described him in 1939 as “a busy man who knows his business and does it like a farmer who mixes brains with industry and experimentation.”

Col. Renz died in May 1957 at the age of 65. In November of that year, the Department of Corrections renamed Farm No. 2 the Paul V. Renz Prison Farm in his honor.

The life and death of Renz Prison 1

Photo taken March 23, 1986. Photo courtesy of the Columbia Missourian.

After that, Renz was rarely in the news, but if it did, it was because of escapes. And those barely made the local wire. One day in 1975, a 26-year-old prisoner named John E. Light, who was serving 10 years for armed robbery, simply walked off the property. The headline in the Kansas City Times read “Renz Prison Farm Inmate Escapes by Taking Hike.”

 The prison’s most noteworthy escape wasn’t by one of its own inmates. On April 23, 1967, a truck left the Missouri State Penitentiary headed toward Renz Prison. It held a shipment of bread and one inmate. Prisoner #00416 was hiding inside one of the boxes of bread, waiting to make his escape. He was serving a 20-year sentence for the robbery of two St. Louis grocery stores and another store in Alton, Illinois, as well as breaking parole. Prisoner #00416 was James Earl Ray, who, a little less than a year later, shot Martin Luther King Jr. at a hotel in Memphis.

"Renz Prison Farm Inmate Escapes by Taking Hike." - Kansas City Times headline

Renz was a men’s institution then. It wasn’t until September 1975 that the prison went co-ed. Twenty-nine women transferred from the women’s facility at Tipton, Missouri, and the farm became the first state prison to house men and women together. At the time, Mark Steward of the Division of Corrections said the move was something that had to be done. Tipton was experiencing issues with violence and overcrowding. The day before the move, Tipton’s superintendent, Carolyn Atkins, was stabbed by an inmate. “We had really exhausted all possibilities,” Steward said. “This was our only alternative.”

By March 1976, 33 women and 157 men were living at Renz. There was only one rule added when the women arrived: No physical contact between members of the opposite sex.

Some men liked the change. Six months into it, one inmate told reporter Charlie Nye of the Columbia Missourian: “This is heaven. You ain’t never gonna see another place like this.” Others complained that Renz was “mellower” before the women came, and that guards were spending more time looking out for rule violations, especially the no-contact rule. “They should ship ‘em all back,” one 23-year-old inmate said. “We used to have more freedom before they came.”

Sometimes, though, the rules were loosened. About once a month, prisoners were treated to a dance, and a live band played. A photo from 1976 shows inmates Cindy Pate and Rick Mims embracing during a dance. The caption says the two planned to be married upon their release. They did eventually marry, though Pate filed for divorce in 1991.

By 1990, Renz housed only women, and the prison made news again as a part of photojournalist Donna Ferrato’s project documenting the domestic violence problem in America. Ferrato, who is based in New York, included the photographs in her book, Living With The Enemy. She ate, slept and talked with the women during her stay.

At the time, Missouri ranked the worst in the country for women who had killed their partners in response to domestic or child abuse, Ferrato says. Renz held many women who claimed to murder their husbands or boyfriends in self-defense, but they were convicted for 30 to 50 years without parole.

The women Ferrato captured in her photographs were among Renz’s last inmates.

Inmates at Renz Prison

Ferrato writes in 'Living With the Enemy,' "Many (inmates) are mothers and even grandmothers who've left children behind."

Rising Waters

The fall of 1992 was wet, and that winter was snowy. The spring brought storms, and by the time the summer thunderstorms came, the ground was saturated. The water of the Missouri River swelled, but the low-lying farmlands that surrounded Renz remained untouched by it.

The river was high, but the water level had dropped. Goeke and the others in charge thought they had “dodged a bullet.” Goeke felt comfortable heading up to Canada in June for an annual fishing trip with his father and brother.

When he returned, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The weather was still wet, but not enough to be concerned about. Goeke left again, this time for a camping trip at the Lake of the Ozarks with his wife and daughters. They planned to stay a few days, but the rain began.

The land around Renz became inundated with water from local creeks. The Missouri was still holding behind its levee, but the valves that allowed water to drain out of the fields couldn’t do their job with high waters on both sides.

The water, mud and silt began flowing into lower areas of the property and into the prison basement. In the beginning the staff could still drive in and out, but the rains kept coming. The building could handle up to 32 feet of water, but once it got close to that number, Goeke and other administrators began planning the evacuation.

“That whole next several days we were making plans to evacuate the offenders and try to get everything up out of the floodplain,” Goeke says. The women were sent to other facilities such as Church Farm and the Chillicothe Correctional Center, located about two-and-a-half hours from Jefferson City. They slept in rows in the wings of the prisons and on the gymnasium floors.

Renz Prison flood damage

The Flood of '93 caused too much damage for Renz to stay open. This tree was carried into the boiler room by the flood.

A group of around 20 staff members had returned to the prison with Goeke and then-director of the Division of Adult Institutions George Lombardi. They parked two semis on the highest ground they could and took flat-bottomed Jon boats back to the buildings, where they pulled into stoops to retrieve inmates’ valuables. Back and forth from the trucks to the housing units over and over again they went, loading as many lockers as possible into the boats and onto the semis for storage.

When that was done, Goeke and other staff members pulled the boats into the stairs leading to the second floor of the prison. They tied up to the railing and moved medical equipment to the top floor. When everything that could be done had been done, they left Renz.

Hover your mouse over our interactive Thinglink to find out more about the flood.

The future of the staff, the offenders and the building was uncertain. While the prisoners stayed in their temporary homes, officers stationed themselves in an old school bus outside the Renz property for security.

For days the current was so swift that no one could get to the property. When the water finally settled down, Goeke, prison administrators and a few state legislators returned to Renz by boat to assess the damage.

No one knew when or if the inmates would be returning to Renz.

“I can remember the several days when we were unloading the offender property,” Goeke says. “It had been in the semis for months and had gotten damp and wet and moldy. It was not in the best condition. They appreciated that they got their stuff back, and they realized what staff had been through. If we had waited a day longer, they wouldn’t have had anything.”

Knocked down fences and caved-in walls of the maintenance buildings comprised some of the exterior damage. “Propane tanks, sides and roofs of buildings, some of the metal buildings — they were just gone," Goeke says. "I can still remember being in the boat with the director (of Missouri Department of Corrections) at the time, and she asked me a question, something to the effect of ‘Well, Mr. Goeke, when do you think you can get back in here?’ I was as honest with her as I could. I said, ‘Director, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to come back.’”

An unlikely demolition

Twenty-two years later, just before 8 a.m. a white pickup rolls into the parking lot, and a short tan man emerges from it. Josh Smart’s family owns the prison, but he’s not the one to talk to. “That would be Dad, or Grandma,” he says, taking a slow drink from the cup in his hand.

Before long, a shiny black pickup turns in and parks in front of the office. A small man with a plastic John Deere mug steps down from the cab, and it’s not hard to guess what Josh Smart will look like in a couple of decades. Greg Smart puts out a cigarette and walks inside the office, stopping to lean on the front counter. It will be a while before anyone else shows up this morning, and there’s time to discuss Renz.

The Smarts knew the land and the buildings long before they owned them. The family had already been farming the land around Renz Prison for years before the ’93 flood forced the prisoners out. The Smarts rented the land around it since the 1970s.

“Really it’s the same, except where the actual complex was,” Greg Smart says between sips from the giant mug. “It had a big chain-link fence around it, but the water tore that out in ’93. Then they tore several buildings and barns down, the state did, when they were getting ready to sell it. It had, I think, three wells on it, which they capped with concrete. It was all self-contained.”

Renz Prison today

Renz is situated on nearly 500 acres of farmland, currently owned by the Smart family.

That was 22 years ago, but 4 or 5 feet of mud still sit in the basement of the now-crumbling main building. The paint the state used to seal the walls is peeling now, and vandals have broken most of the windows. The rubber-roofed gymnasium behind the main building once held the Smart’s farm equipment, but Greg Smart says they’ve long since given up on keeping anything of value there.

“Several law enforcement agencies use it for training, but the state has nothing to do with it," he says. "We just let ‘em use it, and they do a little extra watching up there. We have a lot of trouble with thefts and break-ins. And it didn’t matter what we did, locked it or boarded it up or whatever, people found a way to get in.”

Then the question remains, why keep the building around at all? It’s dangerous; there are holes in the upper floor and asbestos in the walls. A thick layer of mud keeps anyone from getting downstairs. There’s broken glass inside. “People come in, and they can’t stand it when they see a window intact,” Greg Smart says. “They have to throw something through it.”

The place could be knocked down and the extra five or six acres farmed, but Renz Prison won’t be demolished anytime soon.

To do so would require a contractor licensed to dispose of the hazardous materials inside, and though the owners are unwilling to say exactly how much a demolition would cost, Greg’s mother, Peggy Smart, says it is something the family cannot afford.

"No trespassing"

The Smarts don’t spend much time at Renz anymore. Since they stopped keeping equipment in the gymnasium, the only time there are people around is when harvesting the the surrounding farm fields.

Most of the time the building looks completely abandoned; a couple of “No Trespassing” signs and a single chain across a dirt drive are the only indications that someone still has a stake in the place.

The crumbling prison’s broken windows, ivy-covered walls and seclusion prove too tempting for some adventurous photographers and explorers. It’s almost too easy to leave your car among the trees and wander right up to the old cement structure, its entrance still bright white against the greens and golds of the surrounding farmland.

In 2012, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant got permission to tour Renz and reported cold spots, closing doors, the ghost of a woman in a gray uniform sitting at a table, a mysterious white mist and several “orbs” in her photographs, all pointing to paranormal activity in and around the prison. Her findings earned Renz the title of “the most haunted place in Jefferson City” from the Paranormal Research and Investigation Society of Missouri. That is, if you believe that sort of thing.

The real danger lies in the physical and legal risks of wandering the property.

Renz is eerie, but from the outside it seems strong, almost dignified. Weather, age and vandalism have worn it down over the years, but its exterior still stands solid among the trees and vines. The inside gives off a far different vibe.

Renz Prison corridor today

The endless corridors of Renz Prison are now filled with graffiti instead of inmates.

 Paint cracks and curls along the walls and ceiling and gathers in pieces below. Doors that seem more rust than metal cast barred shadows across the floors and onto walls that once held its inhabitants’ mirrors and mementos.

Artists or vandals, depending on your view of things, have left their marks. Someone named DJ declares his love for Susan in scrawling black spray paint over a stairwell, and pentagrams mark at least two doorways. One wall has been tagged with the word “PSYCHO” above a crude lightning bolt.

“It’s just an old building that everyone seems to be fascinated with,” Greg Smart says.

The people responsible for Renz’s new decor are exactly the kind the Smarts have been trying to keep out for reasons of trespassing and safety concerns.

Not everyone knows there are holes in the upper floor that, if stepped in, would drop you 10 to 12 feet to the concrete below. People don’t know that there are places in the ground where the steam tunnels collapsed, leaving the earth weak and ready to crumble. Not all know that the paint chips covering the floor once covered the wall to keep the asbestos at bay.

Anyone found on the property without permission from the Smarts can, and most likely will, be charged with trespassing. Peggy Smart noted in an email that anyone, if caught, will have their vehicle impounded. She also says they will receive “a free ride to the Callaway County jail,” and she’s not kidding.

"It's just an old building that everyone seems to be fascinated with." - Greg Smart, owner of Renz Prison

According to the Callaway County Sheriff’s Office, 15 incidents of trespassing have been reported from 2012 to 2014. From those incidents, nine arrests were made, and 25 citations were issued.

The punishments for being found on the property vary. Trespassers in the past have been fined, sentenced to probation and given community service.

Now what?

The future of Renz Prison looks much the same as its past. The prison will stand in its field, and people will drive past, wondering, “What’s that?” and making plans to revisit the spooky location armed with a camera or some friends.

The best course of action, it seems, it to leave the building alone. Renz has been around for 89 years. It's now part of the landscape..

As long at it stands, people will continue to drive past and wonder about its history, not ever guessing the real story is more interesting than any horror tale.


Special feature: Photographing women behind bars

The life and death of Renz Prison 3

"Prison is a kind of women's shelter, except the women don't make the rules and they can't leave." - Donna Ferrato

A photojournalist stayed three nights in Renz Prison with women who were convicted of killing their abusive husbands and boyfriends.

In 1990, documentary photojournalist Donna Ferrato was almost finished with her book Living With the Enemy, which captured the realities of domestic violence, its perpetrators and its victims.

Nearing the end of the 10-year project, Ferrato traveled to Jefferson City to meet the women of Renz. She had spoken to some activists from Missouri who made a documentary about several of the women serving long sentences for killing their abusers, and she decided to meet them.

“I went to Renz because there were so many women in prison for killing their husbands,” Ferrato says. “I knew I needed to photograph them and bring their stories out through this book.”

After writing to then-superintendent Bryan Goeke, Ferrato gained access to the prison and spent a day photographing them. But it wasn’t enough. She asked for and was granted permission to stay the night and live among these women, many of whom have pleaded guilty to murder.

“The way the system works is that if you plead guilty to murdering someone, you get a lighter sentence,” Ferrato says. “Oftentimes women in these situations, they knew they didn’t really do anything so bad. If a man is trying to kill you or he’s raping your children, what does society expect women to do? But if she pleads guilty, she’ll get a lighter sentence. They really feel like they did the right thing.”

The photographs that Ferrato took at Renz chronicle women imprisoned for killing in self-defense or in defense of their children and grandchildren. They make up the final chapter of Living With the Enemy, which has since been reprinted four times and sold 40,000 copies. It opened up a conversation about domestic violence that Ferrato has been contributing to ever since, most recently through her online project I Am Unbeatable. The website hosts archives and tells new stories of domestic violence through photographs and video narratives, among her other projects.

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