From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
Although repeated efforts were made in territorial days to build a penitentiary, it was not until 1861 that the ground was bought, and the prisoners were not housed by the state until five years later.
For several years the prisoners were kept in the Lecompton jail. The building was insufficient for the purpose and escapes were numerous. The keeper was called Master of Convicts. Captain E. W. B. Newby served in this capacity in 1856, and Levi J. Hampton was appointed November 10, 1856, and served during 1857. In 1857 the legislature passed and act locating the penitentiary at Lecompton with the view of erecting buildings, but made no appropriation for that purpose. The next year the act was repealed and the site relocated at Delaware City, in Leavenworth County, about where the penitentiary now stands. Caleb S. Pratt, Ward S. Lewis and Ashael Hunt were named as a prison commission and empowered to draw on the treasury for funds to buy ground and erect buildings. Congress was then asked for $100,000 to pay the expense. Nothing came of this effort and in 1859 a similar act was passed naming John Ritchie, S. S. Prentis and Fielding Johnson are commissioners. In 1861 a new commission was created to which C. L. Lambdin, M. S. Adams and Charles Sterns were appointed. This commission met July 15, 1861, for the first time. After the consideration of several sites they bought a tract of forty acres about seven miles from Fort Leavenworth on the Military Road leading from the fort to Westport Landing. For this tract they gave $600, on which 20% interest was paid until an appropriation could be made to cover the purchase.
The prisoners had been removed from Lecompton to the Leavenworth County jail where, in the year 1861, a total of twenty-one state prisoners were cared for. In 1862 the number had increased to thirty-two, and the next year some of them were removed to Lawrence and other towns on account of the crowded condition at Leavenworth. Prison labor was contracted at sixty cents per day and the state paid from seventy-five cents to $1.00 for the board and care of the convicts.
The first building appropriation, a sum of $25,000, was made in 1863, but no work was done. In 1864 and appropriation of $50,000 was voted, and a change in the location of the building was authorized by the legislature, but was not made by the commissioners. Contracts were let for the north wing of the main building, but on account of the unsettled condition of the country the work was stopped after completing the foundation. Nothing more was done until 1866, when a further appropriation of $100,000 was made. A substantial wooden structure thirty-six by eighty-seven feet was erected providing temporary quarters for one hundred prisoners, together with offices and sleeping rooms for the guards. There were ninety prisoners at that time. The work of completing the north wing then went on with prison labor, using the limestone quarried in the vicinity. Wells were dug and improvements made on e grounds. The directors in charge at this time were William Dunlap, M. R. Dutton and S. S. Ludlum.
The first warden was George H. Keller, appointed by Governor Crawford in 1867. To him fell the task of organization, and of formulating and enforcing of regulations to run the institution. A school was started and the legislature established a library, setting aside $300 per year from the earnings of the convicts to buy books. An appropriation of $100,000 was made to continue the building operations, and a legislative investigation was held to determine whether the State had been given credit by the counties keeping the State's prisoners for the full amount of labor performed by the convicts. As is usual in such cases, the State was no farther ahead in the end.
J. L. Philbrick became warden in 1868. A final appropriation of $50,000 was made that year for completing the north wing and it was finished two years later. It had three hundred and forty-four cells seven by four by seven. Henry Hopkins became warden in 1870, and the main building was barely completed when his administration closed twelve years later. The original plans made by the State Architect called for one thousand cells. Unfortunately the State compelled him to cut the number to six hundred and eighty-eight. These were so slow in the building that the prison was always overcrowded, and by the time they were finished, the prison population had grown to eight hundred.
In 1871 the legislature fixed the value of convict labor at seventy-five cents per day, and allowed each prisoner five per cent of this amount during good behavior. The next year a bill was passed allowing time to be deducted from the sentences for good behavior. It was about this time that Mrs. Lydia Sexton, the only woman chaplain in the history of the penitentiary, held office for two years.
From the time the prisoners were moved to the penitentiary the aim had been to furnish employment for them and avoid the necessity of contracting their labor to outside parties. Shops incident to furthering the buildings and caring for the needs of the institution were built such as stone sheds, carpenter and blacksmith shops, tailor shop, barber shop, butcher shop, shoe shop and bakery. Brick and lime were manufactured and wagon-making was tried with indifferent success. In 1879 an appropriation was allowed for sinking a coal shaft. This was contingent upon securing the right to mine coal on at least four hundred acres of land in the vicinity. Some of these rights were secured upon the payment of $1.00 to each property holder. Needless to say these property holders did not understand the proposition, and a great deal of trouble was encountered later over these leases. Additional leases have been secured from time to time on which various prices were paid, some of the later leases costing as high as $140 per acre. The State institutions were provided with coal from the penitentiary mines, and the remaining output sold in the general market. This was the arrangement until 1899, when the output was limited to the needs of the State.
State Architect Carr, who planned and erected the penitentiary, discontinued his work about 1880. The building was then practically finished. In 1855, a sewer was put in at a cost of $25,000, and an electric light plant costing $6,000. The next year $25,000 was appropriated to complete the wall around the coal shaft.
Prior to 1899 the labor of convicts was sold by the State. In that year an appropriation of $40,000 was made to build a twine plant, and $150,000 on which to operate it. This allowed the superfluous labor and kept the men employed at the institution. In 1901 the present parole system was instituted and provision made for pardon by the Governor. Two years later the legislature passed a law allowing indeterminate sentences.
For a number of years Kansas had been keeping the Oklahoma prisoners in her overcrowded quarters at a financial loss. The legislature of 1903 forbade the contract to be advanced for longer than two years, and requested the removal of these convicts which was done about 1909. In 1905 $10,000 was appropriated for additional quarters for convicts. In 1911 the "State Asylum for the Dangerous Insane," was made a department of the penitentiary.
In Governor Hoch's administration a committee was appointed to visit the penitentiary and make recommendations for improvements.