Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Old Montana Prison

Wow!!!  What a great day today has turned out to be.  No snow in the forecast until Thursday.  So as promised I decided to share with you our trip to Old Montana Prison.  Where bands of outlaws and vigilantes roamed early Montana Territory leaving a path of destruction and death.  In an attempt to tame the Wild West, a prison was established in Deer Lodge in 1871.  Constructed primarily with convict labor, Old Montana Prison was an active prison until 1979, when it was moved to a new site four miles west of town. 

Built in only eleven months using convict labor, the 1912 Cell House was a model facility in its day.  Each cell had running water, flush toilets and good ventilation.  The Cell House contains eight galleries, four per side.  Each gallery contains twenty-five cells, for a total of 200 cells.  Single confinement to a cell was common practice during this era.  Overcrowding eventually made it necessary to house two men per cell.

At age forty, Paul "Turkey Pete" Eitner was sentenced to life in prison for two murders in 1918.  A model prisoner, he was assigned to tend the prison turkeys.  As the years passed, reality slipped away from him.  One day a man stopped to admire the turkeys, and Eitner sold the man the entire prison flock for 25 cents apiece.  This ended Eitner's farming days, but marked the beginning of his new fantasy career as an "entrepreneur and philanthropist". 

The prison administration humored Eitner and allowed him to have printed checks from the prison print shop. 

He "purchased" the prison and proceeded to "operate" it.  He "paid" all the prison expenses and wrote checks to the guards for their salaries. 

Eitner Enterprises saved Brazil's coffee crop, sold pink alligators, purchased alfalfa seed from Poncho Villa, sold grasshopper legs to Fidel Castro and sold ships to the Navy.

When Turkey Pete died in 1967 at age 89, his cell was retired and converted into a barbershop.  His funeral was the only one ever held within the walls of the prison.

The top cells were hot, while the lower cells were cold.  Inmates on the top tiers would often throw objects at the windows in order to break them, allowing cold air in.  The inmates who lived on the first tier were allowed to hang a drape over the lower part of the cell bars in order to keep the drafts out.  At one time a barber shop was set up in the corner of the Cell.

The first women incarcerated in Montana were housed on the third floor of the Federal Building.  Men were housed on lower floors.  The need for a separate women's facility outside the walls soon became apparent.  Women were housed in this facility until 1959. 

The Women's Prison consisted of two large dorm-style areas, a kitchen, dining area, laundry room and matron's quarters.  A hospital room was added in 1926. 

The number of women incarcerated in Montana at any one time was usually fewer than ten.

The women were moved to a building across Main Street, now the Powell County Museum, and later to Warm Springs.  Montana's Women's Prison is now located in Billings.

After the 1959 Riot, the Women's Prison was converted into a Maximum Security facility in order to separate the riot leaders from the rest of the prison population.  The Maximum Security Building contained twenty high security cells and four disciplinary cells.  Most of the cells did not have a toilet, but were equipped with a bucket for human waste.  Disgruntled inmates would sometimes toss their waste buckets (called honey buckets) on the guards.

In 1908, a failed escape attempt from the Federal Building left Deputy Warden John Robinson dead, and Warden Frank Conley with 103 stitches on his back and neck.  The two inmates involved were George Rock and William Hayes.  They were hung in the prison yard.  This sign were my husband and daughter are standing marks the spot were the hanging took place.

There are currently seven towers.  This is tower 2.  When the wall was extended north in 1911, Tower 7 became the main entrance of the prison.  All inmates, guards, and visitors entered and departed through those doors. 

For more information regarding Old Montana Prison, please visit them on the web @

Even though the day was a rainy day, we still made the most of of it.  The self guided tour lasted us a hour and forty-five minutes. 

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