Good morning! Once again, I find myself caught up researching an interesting topic for my latest release, THE OUTLAW’S REDEMPTION (July 2013). This time, I’ve had to delve into prisons and prison life in the 1880’s. Not the best of times to be convicted of a crime, or to be a lawman for that matter. We’ll start with the lawman.
Like today, once the conviction and sentencing of a criminal were handed down, a U.S. marshal was assigned the job of escorting the prisoner to the state or federal penitentiary where he would serve out his time. The marshal didn’t have his own office or holding cells. He relied on local sheriffs for temporary jail space, rented by the week, until he could transfer his prisoner to his permanent cell. This posed several problems, including arguments over jurisdiction, as well as coming up with the necessary money to rent the space. There was also the matter of who was supposed to watch the prisoner in the interim between conviction and transfer.
If you’ve seen the movie 3:10 Yuma, you have an idea of the problems a frontier U.S. Marshal encountered while escorting a man to prison. As you can imagine, there were many opportunities for escape along the route, beginning in the local holding cell. A frontier U.S. Marshal needed to be a hard, ruthless, seasoned lawman. The movie True Grit (either version) gives a relatively accurate depiction of such a man.
Now let’s talk about the convicted outlaw. The life of a prisoner a century and a half ago was very different from today. Considered less than human, prisoners were treated like animals. Thus they were deprived of liberties and declared slaves to society. A frontier prison received, on average, about fifty new detainees a year. Once inside, the prisoner was assigned a small cell made of hard walls, floors covered in dirt and rodents, and a bed, the latter only if he was lucky. This bed was usually nothing more than a wooden bench. Food was rationed out and not especially hardy or healthy. The convict was expected to work for his stay. Usual activities included carpentry, blacksmithing, shoe cobbling, clothing repair, brick manufacturing and general maintenance.
Because the system was not altogether organized at the time, prisons had a hard time making ends meet. One source of revenue was the contracting of prison labor outside the prison. Often a company would furnish the materials, machinery and supervision for the manufacture of a specific product. The prison then provided the labor, factory space and maintenance of said labor in return for a small fee per man-hour. An interesting side note, it wasn’t until around 1900 that prison labor was used for highway construction (what we think of as chain gangs). Prison reform didn’t kick into high gear until the early nineteen hundreds. Often, the conditions were so terrible prisoners died of dehydration and/or starvation.
Times have certainly changed.