Monday, February 24, 2014

A Monument to Convict Labor

Upon Statehood in 1889, the federal penitentiary at Deer Lodge, Montana, became a state institution. The prison housed 198 inmates in a cell block built to hold no more than 140. Prisoners spilled over into the outbuildings in the yard, the wash house, and the prison’s carpenter shop. Warden Frank Conley foresaw the deterioration of the prison if nothing were done to repair and expand it. But the state had no money. Conley was convinced, like other penal administrators of the time, that idle convicts bred trouble. The prison had no funds, but it did have untapped manpower. The Board of Prison Commissioners gave Conley permission to use convict labor to build a stone wall around the prison. The Commissioners hired James McCalman, a skilled stone and brick mason, to serve as architect, builder, and teacher. McCalman never drew a plan. He designed his projects entirely in his head, and then, with the help of his construction foreman, he taught the unskilled and inexperienced prisoners how to build what he envisioned.

James McCalman building the wall at Deer Lodge State Prison.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives
Construction began in the spring of 1893 and it was a huge undertaking. Inmate crews first rerouted a Northern Pacific sidetrack to transport the buff-colored sandstone from a local quarry. The rail cars brought the raw chunks of stone directly through the prison’s main entrance and into the yard where inmates cut them. James McCalman ably taught the men and directed them in the construction of the elaborate wall. He designed the Romanesque-style enclosure, twenty feet high, with four massive round corner towers and two central square towers to resemble a medieval fortress. The walls extend four feet below ground to foil inmates who considered escape by tunneling beneath. The overall appearance not only brings to mind the medieval castle, but also the inevitable dungeon such places contain: a dark and dank place no one wants to visit.

Photo by J. M. Cooper, from Dark Spaces
When the imposing wall reached completion just one year later, incredulous officials pronounced it an architectural marvel and a “monument to convict skill and labor” unsurpassed in the United States.  It was the beginning of James McCalman’s long career designing and constructing buildings at the Montana State Prison.

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