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Curiosity-seekers pay to spend night in Missouri jail

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - The cheapest room and board in Jefferson City, Missouri, over the weekend was at the county jail, and 170 people gladly checked in.

Cole County charged $30 a night for anyone who volunteered to go behind bars on Friday or Saturday night so officials could give the new jail a test run before it opened for real this week.

People from three states spent the night at the jail, including some lawyers and a couple celebrating their first anniversary.

"It was something they could experience without having to get a criminal record," Cole County Sheriff Greg White said. "They spent the night and gained an understanding that they would not want to ever do this again."

Jailers tried to give the citizens the full experience. They were told to give up their jewelry, cell phones, and other personal belongings. They were booked and photographed and led into the jail commons.

They could keep their cell doors open, but that trapped feeling was still there because the outer room doors were locked, said Bob Watson, 60, a reporter for the Jefferson City News-Tribune who spent Friday night at the jail.

"While it was not a true replication of jail, you got some sense of what it's like to hear that door lock behind you," Watson said.

Watson said two other feelings were boredom and a lack of choice, illustrated by the television being left on one channel and drowned out anyway by everybody talking.

Bed was a steel bunk with a thin mattress. Overhead, a 40-watt bulb stayed lit through the night in each cell. Handy for guards to see inmates, but not conducive to good sleep.

How about the food? Dinner Friday night included cheesy pasta with turkey bits and coffee cake. White called the dinner "pretty tasty," but Watson was less enthused.

"I wouldn't pay for it in a restaurant, but you won't die trying to eat it," he said.

There were small rewards for staying in the jail. Each guest got their booking photo as a souvenir and a T-shirt touting their night in the slammer. In addition, the $30 went for good purposes, White said. Half goes to the sheriff's office to buy equipment and half to the United Way.

White said the jailers learned a few things from the experience, such as kinks in the door-locking system and linens that came out of the laundry too damp.

And if guests didn't get a good night's sleep, neither did White, who was away from the jail for only a few hours each night. "It was an excellent experience and I was exhausted," White said.

(Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Cynthia Johnston)

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