Prison Life in the 1880s

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.

Renee Ryan
Award-winning, multi-published author Renee Ryan sold her first book by winning the 2001 inaugural Dorchester/Romantic Times New Historical Voice Contest. She sold her second book to Harlequin Love Inspired Historical and has since sold nine more manuscripts to Love Inspired and Love Inspired Historical.
Updated: October 29, 2012 — 8:09 pm

10 Comments

  1. Hi Renee. I’ve read such strange things about old prisons. Like that women prisoners were turned in with the general population. That sounds like a pure nightmare.
    And that family could bring food and clothes in and some prisoners could be comparitively wealthy while other’s starved depending on their families.

    I wonder if prison was more of a deterrent then than now?

  2. Great points, Mary. Prisoners were allowed to keep all their personal items (except weapons) throughout their stay. I can only imagine what sort of trading business went on in and around the prisons. There had to be bribes, too. Quite the heirarchy, I bet.

    ~Renee~

  3. I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I think way too many people are imprisoned and there is a lot of mismanagement and corruption as I’m sure there was back then. Some prisons are way too luxurious and most are way too unsafe. It’s an interesting topic!

  4. When I was really little, we often camped in the Sequoias, and actual convicts in striped uniformed picked up the trash! Upon witnessing them with wide eyes, I remember mom and dad always advising me to be a good girl. Of course it was far worse in the 1800’s…LOL. I’d have been a good girl then, too. Good post, Renee.

  5. Interesting post! My sister has worked for the federal prison system for years. I think she will be able to retire in just a few more years. Its a different type of life for sure.

  6. Hi Renee, my husband and I toured the historic Wyoming Territorial Prison a few years ago. It’s a haunting experience to stand inside the walls and not be able to see anything except the prison and the sky. Talk about feeling trapped! And that prison was better than a lot of them . . . Thanks for such an interesting post. Can’t wait for your next book!

  7. Interesting article. I once visited the Old Territorial Prison in Yuma, Az and boy was it a rough one. They treated the hardened criminals there as brutally as they could get away with. For instance, they would put them in a box out in the hot sun for hours on end without water or food. If you have ever spent a July day in Yuma, you know this would be hellish. it usually records the hottest temperatures of any town in Arizona in the summer. 118 to 120 degrees is the normal. Very few escaped and if they did, they died out on the desert.

  8. I was just thinking about Yuma prison before I read the last post.
    Yuma is not the place to be in an enclosed place, in the Summer.
    I can imagine if you were falsely accused, too. You were treated the same as a really bad criminal. I’d try to escape, too.
    I will look for this book. Loved the other one.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, everyone. I think we a few glitches this morning. One of my favorite childhood memories was touring the Old Jail in St. Augustine, supposedly the oldest jail in the United States. Of course, the Old Fort was also a prison, as was Ft. Pulaski up here in Savannah. It’s a hard thing to know what to do with our prisoners, how far to go or not go in terms of rights/treatment/privileges or lack thereof.

  10. Thanks for a really interesting post! I have plans to write a novel that begins with a prisoner being released from the territorial prison, so I found this information helpful!

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