Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Wyoming Territorial Prison

“Maybe they’ll give us adjoining cells.” -- Kid Curry to Hannibal Heyes as they try to escape the thirteen men chasing them in The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit. Even if they did have adjacent cells at the Wyoming Territorial Prison (NOT the Wyoming State Prison as Kid called it in Night of the Red Dog, since it didn't become a state until 1890, which presumably is after the time period of the series), he and Heyes might not have seen much of each other because the cells had solid metal walls between them. Only the doors to the cells were made of slatted, metal bars (see photo above).

Beginning in 1873 and continuing for the next thirty years, the Wyoming Territorial Prison housed both male and female inmates. The Warden’s House (see photo at right and below), located a short distance from the prison building, nicely illustrates the contrast between the convicts and the men who were guarding them. At first, the guards lived in the house as well but when the prison was expanded in 1889, they moved to a room on the second floor inside the prison itself.

Appearing much smaller in reality, the brick prison, surrounded by a wooden stockade with watchtowers (see photo at right), had three tiers of cells in two cell blocks; there were twelve cells on each floor (see photo below). The cells in the North cell block were larger than those in the South cell block. The prison also contained an office for the warden, an intake room where prisoners were processed when they first arrived, an infirmary for a doctor who was on call whenever necessary, a general-purpose room that served as a library/chapel/dining room for special occasions/cigar-making room/lecture hall where people from town came to give talks to the prisoners, a laundry room, a kitchen, and a section on the second floor that housed female inmates. Based on records kept by the Wyoming Territorial Prison, twelve women and 1,000 men served sentences there.

When a man arrived at the Wyoming Territorial Prison to serve his sentence, perhaps in a prison wagon such as the one on the grounds of the park (see photo below), he was taken to the processing room (see second photo below, right) where his photograph was taken and he was issued a prison uniform, shoes, bedding, soap and a candle (see third photo below, right). If a prisoner was literate, he would get two candles per week so he could read books that were borrowed from the prison library. Tobacco and matches, and sometimes hard candy, were also distributed to the prisoners. Inmates were expected to keep their cells as well as themselves clean; they had to bathe once a week, except in winter when it was every other week. Each floor had its own bathing area and when the prison was expanded in 1889, running water was installed which, according to my tour guide, was more than many of the homes in the local community had. Prisoners had to change their underclothes every Sunday and do their own laundry (see fourth photo at right). Chamber pots from the cells were emptied every day. Female convicts were allowed to wear their own clothes but there were no female guards and their bathing area had no curtains or doors for privacy (see fifth photo at right). At any one time, there were no more than three female convicts in the Wyoming Territorial Prison.

The Wyoming Territorial Prison adhered to the Auburn System, a penal philosophy whereby inmates were expected to work hard and reflect upon their crimes by keeping silent for most of the time, although they were allowed to whisper when at work or at night, and could speak if granted permission by a guard. The inmates’ day began at 5:45am and ended at 6:00pm, when they were locked in their cells for the night. On Sunday, they were allowed to sleep until 6:30am and did not go to work. Religious services on Sunday were probably an hour long and were conducted by Dr. May Preston Slossen, the first woman to serve as a chaplain in a prison in America. Prisoners were allowed to exercise in front of their cells every day—they could move out into the corridor as far as the distance their door swung open, about four feet. Female prisoners spent most of their time in their cells. Guards, who did not receive any special training to perform their duties, kept watch from four cages built into the prison walls at both ends of the building (see photo above).

Inmates who were well-behaved and presented no problems could become trustees. They were the ones who worked in the kitchen (see photo below) preparing meals for the prisoners, who normally ate in their cells unless it was a special occasion and then they ate in the dining room on the second floor. Well-behaved inmates could also choose their own cell and apparently cells on the top floor were preferred. On the other hand, prisoners who disobeyed or broke the rules were punished. They could lose their privileges or be sent to Cell #7, the dark cell, for solitary confinement (see photo at right). This cell had a solid metal door and when closed, it was completely dark inside, hence the name. Prisoners often were chained inside or they could be chained to a metal protrusion at the top of the door outside the cell. Prisoners in the dark cell got bread and water two times a day for their meals. As there were no specific, clearly defined rules for the prisoners to follow, discipline was arbitrary and depended on the whim of the guards.

The Prison Industries Building was where male inmates spent their days working (see photo at right). Most of the space inside was taken up by the production of brooms but candles were made there, too, and woodworking was also done by some inmates. Prisoners used several different machines to attach wooden handles to the broomcorn, trim the ends of the broom to a uniform length, put cord around the brooms, and then affix labels to them (see photo of one of the machines at right). The finished brooms, in several different sizes, were sold throughout the United States. Nowadays, brooms that are made in the same way by volunteers can be purchased in the well-stocked gift shop.

An excellent self-guided tour, aided by a detailed brochure, is available and there are also park employees, dressed as prisoners in striped uniforms (see photo below), who readily guide visitors through the facility. The second floor has a section devoted to Butch Cassidy, the prison's most famous inmate. On weekends, Frontier Village, a restored Old West town, is open to visitors. Allow several hours to completely explore the prison and the other buildings on the grounds. Heyes and Kid did all they could to avoid ending up at the Wyoming Territorial Prison but everyone who is a fan of ASJ will thoroughly enjoy the time they spend there!

Website for the Wyoming Territorial Prison:

Brief history of the Wyoming Territorial Prison (top half of webpage):