When Jefferson City was selected as capitol of Missouri in 1821, it was also selected as site for a penitentiary to handle the state's worst criminal offenders. Established during a period of intense interest in using institutions to rehabilitate and punish criminals, the Missouri State Penitentiary was overseen by a Board of Inspectors consisting of three appointees who were charged with examining "into the condition of the convicts, and the prison generally." The day to day operation of the prison was handled by lessees contracted by the state, however, under the rough conditions of the time, this arrangement did not always work smoothly. After a rash of escapes during the summer of 1843, the lessees, Ezra Richmond and James Brown, were charged with violating their lease through failure to provide sufficient guard. These charges came about after two prisoners were sent outside the prison walls to bring in building materials (ironically to raise the walls higher), and made their escape down river. To make matters worse, Richmond and Brown then sent out a guard and two prisoners to track down the escapees, and to their apparent surprise, the pursuing prisoners also escaped.
The charges against Richmond and Brown were suspended after they agreed to seek additional assistance, but the problems were apparently not solved. On October 23, 1843, seventeen prisoners escaped by cutting a hole in the back gate and ten more escaped from the brick yard. After an investigation in November, the Board concluded the obvious: although the prison was run humanely, it was lacking in discipline. Perhaps in response, when three prisoners were found guilty later in the month of attempting to manufacture a key to unlock the gate, they were sentenced to receive between 35 and 39 lashes each, to wear heavy chains for three months, and to have half of their hair closely shaven. Whether this signaled a change in dispensing discipline is uncertain, but by 1847, with new lessees in place, the Board of Inspectors confronted a bevy of complaints from prisoners, including a man who insisted that he had been punished twice and had been whipped with a cowskin without cause, and others who complained of being overworked, "a complaint that is very frequent among the chain spinners and coopers."