Although he is shackled and followed by prison guards with guns, Ryan
Ferguson saunters into the room like any other upbeat 23-year-old.
He wears a light yellow shirt and baggy, bright orange inmate pants, and prison guards follow him into the room and take places near the doors.
Nonetheless, as he comes into the visiting room of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, he slouches onto the prison visiting room chair, looks up and grins.
Ferguson has been incarcerated since he was arrested for homicide in March 2004.
He recently celebrated his 23rd birthday, his fourth since being incarcerated.
Ferguson was convicted of murdering Kent Heitholt, the sports editor of the Columbia Tribune, in October 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in
It was an unsolved murder that plagued Columbia and its police department for two years until Chuck Erickson told police that he and Ferguson, both 17 at the time, had committed the crime with the intent to steal money from Heitholt and buy alcohol.
Four years after Erickson's confession and two years after his own conviction, Ferguson said he has maintained his innocence to his
family and the public ever since his arrest.
The prosecutor, Kevin Crane, and Columbia police Chief Randy Boehm both said they are certain Ferguson is guilty.
Ferguson is allowed eight visits a month, and his parents, Bill and Leslie Ferguson, use most of those.
Bill Ferguson said he doesn't focus on the fact that his son is in prison but instead spends more time thinking about getting him released.
"I'm not to that place," he said. "I don't have time to think about that."
He compared the situation to a house on fire.
He said when a house is on fire, the owners don't have enough time to worry about lost possessions; they worry about putting out the
"I'm still squirting water," he said.
Leslie Ferguson said she thinks more about her son's time in prison.
"I'm in a perpetual state of sadness," she said. "He's missing important years of his life. Why?"
Ferguson's sister, Kelly Ferguson, lives in Washington, D.C., and said she has been seeing her brother about twice a year, although she will see him more since she got a job as a flight attendant.
Kelly Ferguson said often she thinks about her brother.
"Every decision I make, I think about Ryan," she said.
Ferguson has stringent restrictions placed on him because he is under administrative segregation, which he refers to as "the hole."
Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said Ferguson is in administrative segregation because of "dangerous contraband" found in his cell. Hauswirth said administrative segregation is a temporary place inmates are housed "for the security and good order of the prison."
Ryan Ferguson denied involvement in the issue.
He said in he is allowed one book every two weeks in "the hole," plus magazines and newspapers he subscribes
He described some of his neighbors as "very sick individuals" and said his down-the-hall neighbor in a previous cell would kick the door and growl.
He called it "torture" and said sleep was impossible.
"I've seen things I've never seen before," he said.
Ryan Ferguson's family said he was a normal teenager before the arrest.
He grew up in Columbia and focused more on his social life than academics, Leslie Ferguson said.
Still, he graduated high school and was taking classes at a community college in Kansas City, Mo., when he was arrested.
Every year, Ryan Ferguson took a trip with his dad. In 2003 they went to Yosemite, Calif., and in 2002 they went to New York with stops at theme parks along the way.
But now he spends his time reading and working out in his cell.
Ryan Ferguson said he has remained the happy, easygoing young man his mom described, but his outlook on almost everything has changed.
"I don't hate people, I distrust people," he said. "I have reason to."
People who stop his parents on the street to say they support Ryan Ferguson don't visit and don't write, he said.
He and his parents said they plan to devote their time, when and if he is released, to fighting what they consider a corrupt justice system.
"I still believe the system can work," Ryan Ferguson said. "It has worked. It should work."
All three said prosecutors cannot be held accountable for anything said in court. Ryan Ferguson said he thinks governmental checks and balances are not
applied to prosecutors but should be.
He also said conditions in prisons are unacceptable, even for inmates who are guilty, and especially for those inmates who have less money or no one outside the prison to help them.
He has lost weight due to the low-quality food, he said. Every time he leaves his cell, even to shower, he is handcuffed, shackled and put on a leash.
"That's one thing I don't appreciate," he said.
Ryan Ferguson said the word "correctional" in the title of the department is untrue and that the center inhibits progress in its inmates.
"All it does is bring you down," he said.
He compared his situation to poking a dog.
He said if you poke the dog long enough, it will bite whether it's a good dog or
Hauswirth said the inmates, depending on their ability, are required to work at one of several jobs in the prison.
There are several factories, including those that produce officer uniforms, license plates, furniture and recycled printer cartridges.
The offenders receive $7.50 per month for their work.
"We want them to learn job skills," Hauswirth said. "They also learn how to get up in the morning and go to a job. A lot of our offenders enjoy it."
Furthermore, he said the Department of Corrections works with offenders to help them find jobs upon their release.
The Department of Corrections won an award in August from Gov. Matt Blunt for its work with the Division of Workforce Development, specifically for the Missouri Reentry Process.
Ryan Ferguson said the hardest thing about being in prison is the lack of women.
"Cuddling, hanging out — you need that as a man," he said. "That is not something I will ever get used to."
He said his stay in prison has also caused many hardships on his parents.
"I can see the pain in their eyes," he said.
Since he has been in administrative segregation, Ryan Ferguson has been allowed contact visits only behind glass.
He has not seen his sister face-to-face in a year.
"It would be nice to give my sister a hug," he said.
Kelly Ferguson said she misses her brother and wishes she would have spent more time with him.
"He's such a cool kid," she said. "I really put him through it when we were growing up. I regret that so much now."