Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Wyoming's Frontier Prison
We decided to stay an extra day in Rawlings based on the weather forecast and to allow our newest member, Halley, to recover from the shock of her first day on the road. The major tourist attraction in town (read only) is the Wyoming Frontier Prison. So that was our agenda for the day.
We arrived at the advertised tour time and found that we were going to have a private tour, as we were the only folks to show up. The prison was opened in 1901 after 15 years of discussion on costs. When it opened it contained one cell house with 104 cells. It had no electricity, no running water and barely heat. It housed many more prisoners than was intended and overcrowding was always an issue. The prison continued to grow over the years but conditions improved very little.
There were any number of escapes and attempted escapes along with a riot or two over the years. The treatment of the prisoners was harsh when necessary. There was isolated confinement, the “hole “, and the dungeon. Until 1930, it was legal to beat and whip the difficult prisoners with rubber hoses. It was thought the “hole” caused a number of prisoners to lose their minds.
Our tour guide pointed out the many issues associated with life at the prison. A few of those that stuck in my mind was: little to no heat in the winter and often the inside temperature would be as low as 20 below zero. Even so, the prisoners were still required to take a cold shower every third day: in certain cell blocks there was little natural or artificial light. She demonstrated this by having Anneke walk into one of the cells. She could not see the interior and we could not see her. When I took a flash picture, we discovered that the interior walls were painted red. The guide pointed out that one of the few privileges the inmates had was to paint their cell any color they liked. Often those on the dark rows chose dark interior colors so the guards could not observe them in the cells and lastly the other privilege that was allowed was for prisoners to create art to decorate the prison and that art remains today.
Wyoming has the death penalty and during this prison’s operation nine prisoners were executed by hanging. The first warden thought that no man should have to be the one to pull the trap door to hang a prisoner and a unique invention was developed that avoided that necessity. The invention involved a system where, as the condemned man stepped on the trap door, his weight would start water flowing from a container and this would then trigger the trap door to open. After 1936, six were executed in the gas chamber.
All in all you come away with the idea that this prison was for punishment and demanded that all prisoners work to support themselves. There were a number of industries started and all but the most vicious were required to work. Those that did not work were allowed a short walk each day, but if they crossed a certain line they were told they would be shot and killed. A number suffered that fate as apparently they did not take these warnings seriously.
We found it to be a fascinating tour and a chance to see firsthand how criminals were treated in the not so distant past. It may be a bit harsh, but I am not sure the current system works any better.