Kentucky State Penitentiary

Submitted by JoAnn Scott

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Kentucky State Penitentiary, located at Eddyville, has been the state's maximum security prison ever since it was built. It is for the custody of the more serious offenders who cannot safely be retained at the Reformatory.

In 1879, Dr. Luke P. Blackburn, a noted doctor, was elected Governor of Kentucky and started the penal reform. On April 7, 1880, a bill was introduced and passed by the legislature, authorizing the building of the penitentiary at Eddyville. This bill provided that not less than 200, nor more than 600, acres were to be purchased for the new institution. Eight acres were to be enclosed by walls not to exceed 25 feet in height. A maximum of 500 cells were to be constructed by prison labor with state supervision. The legislature voted one hundred fifty thousand ($150,000) dollars to begin the structure.

Governor Blackburn appointed three men to adopt the general designs and arrangements of the penitentiary: Judge Richard H. Stanton, Mason County; Judge William Beckner, Clark County; and General H. B. Lyon, Lyon County. These men decided on building a structure similar to the prison at Jolliet, Illinois. Because of climate and other numerous advantages for the institution, the committee chose Eddyville for the penitentiary site. The legislature was to choose by joint vote of the two houses a warden for a term of four years.

The final site chosen at Eddyville embraced 87 acres. The land was purchased from owners at a cost of four thousand ($4,000.00) dollars; of which the citizens of Eddyville contributed one thousand four hundred ($1,400) dollars. The architect's specifications called for a walled enclosure to embrace 10% acres instead of 8; however, because of several delays, construction did not begin until October 1884, the first year of the administration of Governor J. Proctor Knott,


When a convict is entered into the prison, he is first examined, then his clothes are taken and he is finger-printed. After being given prison clothes, he is then assigned a cell and given a regulation book. He can send and receive only a certain number of letters per month, and all communications are inspected and sometimes censored. If the prisoner has a visitor, he too is examined, and all gifts are inspected very carefully. After serving a portion of his sentence varying as to the crime which was committed, and if he can meet certain requirements such as the promise of a job, he is eligible for parole.

For every day's work, the prisoner is given eight cents. This amount is not given to him directly, but put into his account. Upon the completion of his term he is given five dollars, a suit of clothes, and a bus ticket back to the place from which he was sentenced.


The institution has the services of one full-time protestant minister and one part-time Catholic chaplain. Regular protestant services are held each week and the chaplain also makes regular visits to those confined in the hospital, the lockup, and the death row. His office is open daily for the counseling of inmates. The Catholic chaplain conducts Mass once each month and periodically visits each inmate of that faith.


The medical and dental needs of the inmates are cared for on a limited basis by one part-time physician and one part-time dentist. During the fiscal year of 1961-62, the following services were performed:

3 major operations
500 physical examinations
2 bone fractures treated
1825 dental examinations, extractions and fillings
6217 other laboratory tests made and treatments administered
The prisoners sell blood for $5.00 a pint to outside hospitals.


Space in the prison compound has been converted into an outdoor recreation area which includes a football field, baseball diamond, basketball court, swimming pool. The prison also has a prison band which plays outside, and once in a while gives entertainment inside.


Both primary and secondary education is provided. In 1963 the first commencement exercises were held within the walls of a Kentucky prison. Some of the graduates started in the first grade, but worked their way through high school. All classes are held in the recreation hall and even though the conditions are somewhat crowded, this problem will soon be eliminated by the building of a new school. This school is being built inside the prison walls from materials acquired from the Eddyville Baptist Church and the Eddyville Elementary School. These two buildings had been bought by the Federal Government because they were in the flood area of Barkley Lake. The state bought them for a total of $400; the school building for $225; the church for $175. Since the building is being erected by prison labor under the supervision of state personnel, it will cost no more than $125,000, and will be worth at least $250,000. The building will have complete class room and laboratory facilities, plus room for the recreation department.


Because there is not enough room inside the prison compound for proper expansion, plans to build a dormitory on Farm No. 1 to offset the problem of overly crowded conditions are being considered.

The farms are in four different tracts. Three tracts join each other and the fourth is approximately 19 miles from the other three. The last one is used mainly as a stock farm and is known as Farm No. 2. It has 480 acres and is located west of Kuttawa. It was purchased in the late 1930's or early 1940's. Farm No. 1, Fredonia Valley, was purchased in 1949. Another tract was purchased that joined Farm No. 1 the same year, and in 1962 another tract was bought, which also joined the ones already purchased.

The total amount of farm land, owned by the State of Kentucky at Eddyville, is approximately 2,400 acres. There are 10 employees on the farms and approximately 100 inmates. The inmates are carried back and forth to the prison. They grow corn, hay, small grain such as wheat, oats, potatoes, and rice. Vegetable gardens supply the prison with enough vegetates for the winter. The inmates can between 75,000 and 100.000 gallons of vegetables yearly. Cattle are also raised, and at present, 600 head of beef cattle and 150 head of dairy cattle are on the farms.

Mr. Jess Buchanan was warden when the first farm was purchased and he was also warden when the large farm was bought. When the last farm was purchased in 1962, Mr. Luther Thomas was the warden. In 1961-62 the prison had on hand 689 swine, 145 head of dairy cattle, 495 head of beef cattle, and 1866 chickens. The total value of food produced during the 12-month period was $171,439.86.

Vegetables $74,682.82
Fork $26,026.30
Milk $33,745.45
Poultry $ 1,650.76
Beef $27,563.43
Eggs $ 8.356.10

There are approxiately 25 to 30 inmates employed in the leather shop where they make all types of leather products. Some of the products are sold at the leather stand in front of the prison. Other leather goods are shipped to customers in various parts of the state. The prisoners that work in the leather stand are not paid a definite wage but are paid according to the sales they make.

The prisoners are noted for their originality and beauty in the development of furniture. This, possibly, could have been a profitable business venture, but as a result of an intervention by the labor union, they can not sell their product. Their talent is not wasted, however; they are allowed to refinish all types of furniture and every year they refinish all state park furniture.

A magazine called "The Castle on the Cumberland" is published once a month by the inmates. You can subscribe for the magazine for one dollar ($1.00) a year. Copies of this magazine are mailed as far away as California and Alaska.


Education: Illiterate,
38; did not finish eighth grade,
436; some high school, 81;
some college, 21.

Marital Status: Single men, 653; married men, 467.

Offenders: First offense, 469; second offense, 307; third offense, 217; fourth offense, 73; fifth offense, 19; sixth offense, 15; seventh offense, 10; eighth and over offense, 10. Eighty to ninety per cent of offenders return.

Top Counties with Offenders:

Jefferson, 245; Christian, 84; Daviess, 82; McCracken, 82; "Warren, 35; Fayette, 35.

Age Table: Under 20, 106; 21-30, 605; 30-40, 280; 40-50, 130; 50-60, 51; 66 and over, 8. The average age of prisoners is 27.

Crimes: Accessory before the fact, 2; assault with a weapon, 6; assault with intent to kill, 2; auto theft, 1; breaking and entering, 6; house breaking, 7; store breaking, 6; safe breaking, 6; burglary, 7; possessing burglar tools, 9; carnal knowledge 1; deadly weapons, 9; child desertion, 1; detaining a person against his will, 6; false pretenses, 14; forgery, 59; uttering a forgery, 45; grand largeny, 58; hog stealing, 2; horse stealing, 1; immoral acts, 15; malicious cutting, 9; malicious shooting, 9; malicious striking, 6; manslaughter, 6; murder, 153; non-support, 4; failure to appear when court ordered, 3; taking a car without the owner's permission, 24; rape, 57; receiving stolen property, 4; robbery, 79; armed robbery, 160; armed robbery with a deadly weapon, 9.

Length of Sentence:

One year, 115; two years, 134; three years, 113; four years, 46; five years, 88; six years, 13; seven years, 11; eight years, 15; nine years, 5; ten years, 55; fifteen years, 24; twenty years, 19; twenty-five years, 88; life, 320; life without parole, 23; death cell, 8.


1888—300 1925—656 1943—1128
1901—500 1926—673 1944— 977
1915—727 1927—636 1947-48— 914
1916—693 1928—838 1948-49—1057
1917—579 1929—979 1949-50—1111
1918—461 1936—1354 1950-51—1112
1919—462 1937—1446 1951-52—1062
1920—370 1938—1421 1952-53— 962
1921—428 1939—1508 1953-54— 945
1922—504 1940—1454 1954-55— 958
1923—521 1941—1479 1963—1135
1924—647 1942—1351  

The prison at the present time can accommodate 1,200 prisoners.

During the year of 1963 there were 20 prisoners released by the expiration of their sentence, 19 prisoners were released on parole, eight prisoners were confined on death row, and 16 were admitted by committment.

There have been 162 (78 white and 84 negroes) put to death by electrocution at the prison.


1888-1896—Louis Curry

1896-1901—Henry F. Smith
In No. 2 cellhouse there is an old tunnel, unused for many years, which leads back into the hill. Branching off from the same are three or four dungeon-like niches with heavy ring bolts imbedded in the stone flagging. Legend states, supported here and there by the written record, that recalcitrant prisoners were chained in this dreary darkness to repent of their sins.

1901-191:3—Henry T. Hagerman

First victim of the legal electrocution machine (death chair) in Kentucky was a young negro, James Buckner, who had been convicted of murder at Lebanon, Marion County. Buckner was executed shortly after midnight, July 8, 1911. A total of four electrocutions were carried out under Mr. Hagerman before he relinquished office in July 1912.

1912-1929—John B. Chilton
Died in office.

1929-1932—L. R. Gunun
Acting warden.

1932-1935—Tom Logan
HB While he was warden 21 legal electrocutions took place. He did not attend a single one, nor would he certify that the judgment of the court had been carried out.

1935-1936—Ben W. Wilson

Acting Warden.
1936-1944—W. Jesse Buchannan
New cellhouse was built. There were 576 cells added.

1944—Dewey Ward 1945—

Guy Tuggle 1947—

Jess Buchannan 1955—

Chuck W. Thomas
1960—W. Bill Jones
Died in office

1961—Luther Thomas



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