Powell County, Montana
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History of Montana's State Penitentiary

The Old Montana Prison is preserved and presented by the Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation.
It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


In an attempt to tame the wild west, a prison was established in Deer Lodge in 1871.
Constructed primarily with convict labor, the Old Montana Prison was an active prison until 1979, when it was moved to a new facility four miles west of town.

This is the floor plan for the prison when it was completed.

This excerpt of the history of the prison is from Montana's Department of Corrections website:

The territory of Montana, created in 1864, had no prison during the Civil War and gold rush days. Federal prisoners, convicted of violating the laws of Congress, were sent under contract to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Those convicted of violating territorial laws were incarcerated in county jails, primarily in Madison County. A rudimentary federal prison existed for a short time in Virginia City, but it was not adequate for the demands of the territory.
Territorial Governor James M. Ashley demanded a properly equipped penitentiary, and on January 22, 1867, Congress appropriated "no more than $40,000" to erect a prison in Montana Territory at a site to be selected by the Territorial Legislature, subject to approval by the Secretary of Interior. On the day the appropriation became law, the Territorial Legislative Assembly instructed C.S. Ream and William Sturgis to locate a site. They chose Algenta [Northeast of Bannock], but were overruled by the Territorial government. On November 19, 1867, the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Montana approved the Deer Lodge site. An eleven and 4/5 acre site in Deer Lodge was selected and Montana Territorial Governor Green Clay Smith notified O.H. Browning, the Secretary of Interior of the action. However, a group of Deer Lodge residents (including Granville Stuart and J.S. Pemberton) contested the Territorial government's claim to the site until finally the U. S. Attorney General's Office settled the issue by ruling that the United States already owned the land. Dr. Armistead Hughes Mitchell, pioneer physician and surgeon in the Deer Lodge Valley, was appointed as Superintendent of Construction and Building in 1869 by President Grant to begin the actual construction of the Territorial Prison. He was immediately faced with a fiscal problem. The original prison design, by a Mr. Mollett representing the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, would cost at least $100,000 to construct, according to James Cavanaugh, Montana's Territorial Delegate; however, only $40,000 had been appropriated. In response to the limited amount of available money, Dr. Mitchell began a series of cost-cutting project revisions which eventually reduced the original design from a central building with North and South cell wings to a single wing constructed of granite (which was cheaper than cement). This "Left wing of the Montana Penitentiary' was complete by October 6, 1870 and ownership transferred from the U.S. Attorney General's Office to the Territory of Montana on May 15, 1873.

"From the very beginning, it was apparent that the new wing failed to satisfy even minimal expectations. The finished wing entailed 'nothing but bare stone walls, roof, floor, fourteen brick cells, six by eight feet, in the clear -- with nothing between them and the roof, and only gratings for the lower windows. Territorial Governor Benjamin Potts bemoaned the prison's ' unfinished condition', maintaining that to complete the structure required at least an additional $4,500"

The Montana Legislative Assembly authorized Governor Benjamin F. Potts to appoint a three-member director's board (Hugh Duncan, J. H. Robertson, Granville Stuart) and a warden (C. B. Adriance) to oversee the new Territorial facility. As their first act, the new directors petitioned for additional cells: "...We would recommend ...the Legislature to make an application to Congress for an appropriation to complete the present wing. The completion of this wing will give us twenty-eight additional cells, and judging from the fact that we now have nineteen prisoners, and that most of the recent arrivals have been for long terms, many of the cells asked for will soon be required" After operating the facility for about one year, the Montana Territorial government decided that running a prison was unacceptably expensive and requested the Federal Government to once again resume administrative responsibility. The Act of June 20, 1874 restored Federal operational control and on August 1, 1874, U. S. Marshall William F. Wheeler assumed duties as the Prison's Administrator. At the urging of Montana's elected officials, Marshall Wheeler constructed an additional tier of 14 cells at a cost of $6,000 using convict labor for the project. He also enclosed the prison yard with a twelve-foot high wood fence. [Although Wheeler used inmate labor for prison construction in 1877, he indicated that although the inmates made their own clothes, cooked, cut lumber and performed "all that is done for the prison and themselves" the greatest misfortune to the prisoners was that they had no regular employment. Marshall Wheeler tried unsuccessfully to provide inmate contract laborers for Deer Lodge residential projects, as the prison offered no employment or industrial training beyond day-to-day facility related work.]

On July 7, 1884, the amount of $15,000 was appropriated to complete the unfinished portions of the Prison because of a need for more inmate housing. However, Governor John Schuyler Crosby's newly appointed Commission of Examiners found the East and West walls of the existing facility had no stone foundations; extended only eighteen inches into the ground, and were composed of soggy brick which could not support additional weight. Although the prison urgently needed additional cells, the available money was used to build a central office building with guard dormitories. This was done over the protests of U. S. Marshall Alexander B. Botkin, the Superintendent of Construction. Finally, on March 3, 1885, Congress appropriated $25,000 for completion of the Montana Territorial Prison and, by the spring of 1886, the South Wing was completed. This was a three-storied brick cell house containing a three-tier block of brick cells. There were forty-two new cells, which increased the facilities' overall inmate capacity by eightyfour. [ Status as of March 3, 1885: 70 cells in the prison -- 14 constructed in 1870, 14 in 1874, and 42 in 1886. With double bunking, total capacity was 140].

Three years later, on November 8, 1889, Montana became the forty-first state and assumed ownership of a Prison, which it could not afford to operate, and certainly not renovate or modernize. In February 1890, the Board of Prison Commissioners contracted out the entire Prison operation at the rate of 70 cents per capita per diem to Colonel Thomas McTague and Frank Conley for a term of one year. The contract was renewed year-by-year until, in 1909, another firm underbid Conley and McTague. However the State owed Conley and McTague money for construction costs and inmate care which neither the State nor the newly selected contractors could afford to repay. As a result, Montana reassumed operational control over the Prison and appointed Conley as Warden, a position he retained until relieved of his duties by Governor Joseph Dixon in 1921. When Conley began running the Montana prison it was overcrowded (198 inmates), deteriorating, and increasing in population. Inmates were being housed in outbuildings in the prison yard, carpenter shop, storehouse and wash house. There was also no substantial security fence or wall. Warden Conley began his administration by beginning extensive renovation of the security fence and construction of a log cell house, which could house sixty-eight inmates. [With this addition, he was housing about 242 inmates in a facility with 70 actual cells (capacity 140 double-bunked), plus 68 inmates in the log cell house].

View http://www.cor.mt.gov/content/About/HistoricalOverview to read the whole history.

[Much of the below information was taken from a “walking tour” many years ago, Submitted by Jo Ann Scott]

Federal Building 1871

Montana's first prison building was constructed on the site of the current Administration Building. The three story brick and granite structure had fourteen cells and no perimeter fence.

Two wings were added in the late 1800's that increased the capacity to 98.

In 1908, a failed escape attempt from the Federal Building left the deputy warden dead, and Warden Frank Conley with 103 stitches on his back and neck. The two inmates involved were hung in the prison yard.

This structure was demolished in 1931 and replaced with the current Administration Building.

Convict Labor

The depression of 1893 left the state of Montana without the necessary funds to make essential improvements on the prison. Facing overcrowded conditions and discipline problems, Warden Frank Conley instituted a program of convict labor for prison expansion.

Existing structures that were built with convict labor under Conley include the wall, the 1912 Cell House, the Maximum Security Building, and the W.A.Clark Theater.

By contracting inmates for construction projects throughout the state, Conley provided income to run the prison and alleviated the overcrowded conditions by housing inmates at the job sites.

Prison crews built 500 miles of road at Flathead Lake, MacDonald Pass, most of the roads around Deer Lodge, and roads in various other counties throughout the state.

Inmates built eleven buildings at Warm Springs (Montana State Hospital) and four buildings at Galen (Montana Tuberculosis Sanitarium).

Conley leased or owned eleven ranches which were operated by inmates. He also provided inmates to local farms and ranches. In 1916, 50% of the inmates worked and lived outside the walls of the prison.

1912 Cell House
Montana State Prison, 1912 Cell house construction
Construction of the 1912 Cell House.

Built in only eleven months using unskilled convict labor, the 1912 Cell House was a model facility in its day. Each cell had running water, flush toilets, and good ventiation.

The Cell House contains eight galleys, four galleys per side. Each galley contains twenty-five cells, for a total of 200 cells.

The design of the Cell House was influenced by the Auburn system of prison administration which was based on the idea of solitary confinement at night, hard work during the day, and silence at all times. This system was used until the early fifties.

Overcrowding eventually made it necessary to house two inmates per cell. Inmates were not allowed to talk during meals, during work, or from cell to cell.

Deputy Warden's Office

For security reasons the warden's office was located across the street from the prison. The deputy warden was in charge of the daily operations of the prison. In the 1959 Riot, Deputy Warden Ted Rothe was shot and killed in this office by rioting inmates.

A painting of Frank Conley hangs on the far wall. As the first warden of the Montana State Prison, Conley transformed the overcrowded dismal facility into a massive prison structure with the use of convict labor. Conley also served as mayor of Deer Lodge for thirty-one years.

Maximum Security Visiting
This area was used for maximum security visitors. Inmates were strip-searched before and after visits. More and more wire mesh was added over the years in an at­tempt to prevent the passing of contraband

1896 Cell House

1896 Cell House

1896 Cell House

An enormous red brick cell house with rounded towers loomed over the city of Deer Lodge until 1959 when it was damaged by an earthquake and torn down. In 1960 this slab was poured as a foundation for a metal gymnasium and a metal classroom building. Both buildings were moved to the new prison.

The 1896 Cell House was divided into two sections by a two-foot thick wall which ran from the roof to the floor. The smaller section held up to thirty-two youths, while the larger section held 258 men.

The Cell House did not have running water or sewer facilities. Each cell had two buckets, one for sewage and one for water.

The License Plate Factory

License Plate Factory and Montana State Prison

Prison Yard in the 1940's
Prison Yard in the 1940's


Throughout the 108 year history of this institution, the prison yard had many uses and supported a number of different buildings.

The yard area was used as an exercise area and garden. Notice the various courts and horseshoe pits. Joggers would run along the west wall.

During WWI, Conley trained a unit of inmates in the yard in preparation for combat. The War Department rejected Conley’s offer of assistance.

During WWII, a victory garden was planted in the yard.

The prison was moved in 1979. It is now a museum.
Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation 1106 Main Street, Deer Lodge , Montana 59722
[July 1992]



Complete and total darkness earned these two cells their name, the black box.

Inmates were locked in these cells for a period of one to three days and placed on the bread and water routine. They were provided a mattress, a wool blanket and a honey bucket.

The first women who were incarcerated in Montana were housed on the third floor of the same building as the men. The need for a separate women’s facility outside the walls soon became apparent. The women were housed in this facility until 1926. The number of women incarcerated in Montana at any one time was usually fewer than ten.
When this building was converted into maximum security, the women were moved to various building across the street and later to Warm Springs were the women are currently being housed.

The wood structure beside this building was used as a visiting booth after the Womena’s Prison was converted into a maximum security facility. Inmates were allowed visitor privileges of one hour per week.

The tower that was damaged in the 1959 Riot.
The tower that was damaged in the 1959 Riot.

1959 Riot

• On April 16,1959, Jerry Myles and Lee Smart led twelve inmates in a riot which left Deputy Warden Ted Rothe dead.
• They took eighteen prison employees and five stool pigeon inmates as hostages, soaked rags with flammable liquid and threatened to burn them alive.
• After thirty-six hours of mounting tension, Warden Floyd Powell implemented a daring rescue attempt. The National Guard fired a bazooka at the tower where the ringleaders were headquartered. Meanwhile, a team of men burst through the door in the west wall, crossed the yard, and entered the Cell House, freeing the hostages.
• Myles and Smart were found dead of an apparent murder-suicide at the top floor of the tower.
• Although the riot focused attention on the overcrowded conditions, it was twenty years before the last prisoners were moved to the new prison

Daily Schedule at the Prison Circa 1970

Short line consisted of new inmates, protective custody inmates, and the kitchen crew.
Main line consisted of the main prison population.

6:00am Count and short line was run for breakfast.
When all men were accounted for, short line was run. New inmates, protective custody inmates, and the cell housecleaners (swampers) went to breakfast. Main line ran next.

10:30 Short line was run for lunch.
11:00 Work crews came in.
11:30 Count and main line was run for lunch
Mail and medication were distributed to the cells after lunch.
12:30pm Work crews went out

Change of shifts for guards. Count.

Short line ran for dinner.

Work crews return.
Afternoon yard (outside recreation).
Inmates return to cells.
Count and main line ran for dinner.
Mail call and medication.
Outside recreation, television, hobby shop, self-help groups (AA, etc.)
Showers when inmates came in from recreation.
Clean clothes, cigarettes, etc., were issued.
Kitchen crew and those who had outside recreation could go to the television room or return to their cells.
10-12am Everyone back in their cells, cells locked. Shift change. Count
Shift change and count.

Some Famous Inmates

Paul (Turkey Pete) Eitner

At age forty, Paul "Turkey Pete" Eitner was sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1918. As a model prisoner,he was assigned to tend the prison turkeys. But 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 25c each. This ended Eitner's farming days, but marked the beginning of a new career as an "entrepreneur and philanthropist."

Inmates humored Eitner by printing him checks in the prison print shop.He "purchased" the prison and proceeded to run it. He paid all the prison expenses and wrote checks to the guards for their salaries.He saved Brazil's coffee crop, sold pink alligators, purchased alfalfa seed from Pancho Villa, sold grasshopper legs to Fidel Castro, and sold ships to the Navy.

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