Dark Spaces: Montana’s Historic
Penitentiary at Deer Lodge
Ellen Baumler, photographs
by J.M. Cooper
University of New Mexico Press
$24.95, 117 pages
The Old Prison Museum in Deer Lodge may be one of the few tourist attractions anywhere to advertise its tour (via the Powell County Museum & Arts Foundation website) as “a relief to conclude.” The inmates who once populated the now-mothballed prison would no doubt agree.
Even civic boosters describe the old prison as “chilling,” “bleak,” “drab,” “cold” and “damp,” noting, perhaps not coincidentally, that actor James Woods made two movies there.
Well of course it’s creepy. Despite the goofily appended Montana Auto Museum taking some sting out of the signage, the place is appalling, with its imposing stonework looming right up over the downtown sidewalk and its obligatory “hole” and the figurative if not literal ghosts of so many brutalized criminals and, more likely than not, innocents as well.
The historic state penitentiary at Deer Lodge (not to be confused with its replacement, sited a few miles out of town) is squeezed between Main Street and the Clark Fork River, which had already begun running with the nonhuman refuse of Butte’s upstream mines by the time the federal government opened the cell doors in 1871—18 years prior to Montana statehood. The penitentiary was transformed through convict labor many times over the years, but it wasn’t closed until the horrifyingly modern year of 1979, after some 20,000 men and women had served hard time.
In Dark Spaces, historian Ellen Baumler and photographer J.M. Cooper thankfully steer clear of horror-show hucksterism in favor of straight history. The ominous title, which never quite delivers on its shadowy promise, is about as spooky as it gets, and the thinly explored idea that inmates “lost their identities” within the walls is as close to superstition as this book cares to tread. The result is less sensational than one might like, a half-size coffee-table paperback illustrated exclusively in shades of gray, but a necessarily sober addition to the history of the Deer Lodge Valley.
The monochromy is partly due to the photography, a mix of Cooper’s contemporary black-and-whites with archival photos of prisoners and vintage architectural shots. The rarely-more-than-workmanlike writing bears some responsibility as well. Baumler and Cooper seem intent on staying out of the way while the walls talk.
And they do have stories to tell, some more familiar than others. There’s Deer Lodge’s 4,000-volume prison library, once well endowed by Copper King William Clark. There’s the nationally unprecedented prison theater, now a charred husk due to arson. There’s the nation’s first prison-based brass band, giving public Sunday concerts. There’s the infamous riot of 1959. There were hangings in the yard and suicides in the tower and never-explained deaths in solitary and just one lonely funeral—that of an inmate who’d long lost his marbles.
Who knew that as federal authority over the penitentiary was passed to the state in the late 1800s, officials decided, in an echo toward the future, to contract operation of the prison out to private enterprise? The state engaged the team of Thomas McTague and Frank Conley, paying 70 cents per prisoner per day to house and feed and discipline the first 100 prisoners, and $1 per prisoner thereafter. According to Baumler’s research, McTague and Conley spent 40 cents per inmate and pocketed the rest (never mind the revenue generated when Conley hired his prisoners out for day labor in the surrounding forests and fields).
Who remembers the “Auburn Silent System” so voguish in 19th-century penal theory? “Prisoners worked together during the day,” Baumler writes, “but were placed in solitary confinement at night. The system called for enforced silence in the belief that felons learned criminal behaviors and prohibiting communication among inmates prevented reinforcing those behaviors. The system utilized various means of corporal punishment, and prisoners marched in lock step, heads always toward the guards, to and from their work places. Wearing humiliating stripes, the objective was to remove all individuality.”
And who wants to remember a prison that well into the 20th century offered many inmates no plumbing, just “honey buckets,” perfect for launching their contents through the bars at unlucky guards?
Baumler retrieves it all—or tantalizing scraps of it—from the public record, especially the Montana Historical Society’s Research Library, which houses the prison’s administrative records. She pays particular attention to the vexing reality of women prisoners and Montana’s shameful history of incarcerating citizens for sedition. She hits on the highlights of the prison’s century-long history, applies brief context and provides introductory biographies of key personalities in the prison’s development.
But for all the peeling paint and crumbling plaster of a seemingly distant nightmare, what’s most striking—if never explicitly remarked—in this straightforward study is the extent to which the challenges facing prison-keepers in the early 1900s are identical to the challenges facing prison-keepers today: overcrowding, staff turnover, inadequate medical care, mental illness and abuse of power.
In these regards, the old prison at Deer Lodge is perhaps less unique than its crenellated guard towers and history of firsts might suggest.
“The Montana State Prison,” Baumler writes in an early bit of understatement, “was not a good place to be.”
As revelations go, this isn’t much. But as history, it’s awfully difficult to doubt.