Located beside the Colorado Territorial Prison in Cañon City, Colorado is a small green-pastel colored building. Resembling a school house and sporting a fourteen-step staircase to its entrance, it seems out of place next to the ominous looking 800-inmate medium security facility that it lies beside. In its day, it housed about 50 female inmates. So why is it so small? Is it because women are much better behaved than men are? Well, yes. Let’s face it, women do not commit crime at the same rate as men do. You know the saying, “[i]f men were angels.” Evidently, women are the angels that men are not. I’m not saying that men are dumb, they just don’t seem to be as smart as women when it comes to staying out of trouble.
That said, I don’t get why some men (or even some women) end up in prison. In the first exhibit located just past the front entrance is a reproduction of legendary prison warden Roy Best’s office. Behind his desk is a credenza. Built by a prisoner and adorned with his elaborate carvings, it resembles an old-world museum piece. In another display is a chess set that a prisoner crafted from toilet paper and water. In the basement are drawings and paintings that resemble the work of professional artists, yet they are the work of convicts. So why do people this talented serve time in prison? It doesn’t make sense given that anyone this skilled clearly has abilities desired by others who live on the outside. I guess it’s a question that we’ll never know the answer to, but, to me, it is worth thinking about.
A tour of the museum begins with several outdoor exhibits. One, housed in an open-air white clapboard structure trimmed with lime green molding, is Colorado’s only gas chamber. Following the switch from gas to lethal injection in 1990, the chamber was removed from the Territorial Prison’s Cellhouse Three and reassembled on the museum grounds. Reading the description of how such an execution is carried out isn’t pleasant, but it is what happened. Of the 77 executions that have occurred in Colorado, 32 were in the gas chamber. In another are two vintage prison cells so small that they barely have enough room for a single cot and walkway around it. They were the motivation for a lawsuit filed on behalf of the inmates that alleged cruel and unusual punishment.
After entering the museum, the visitor is faced with a long corridor of thirty cells–fifteen on each side. To the left is a display case of numerous contraband items. Most are weapons whose craftsmanship quality ranges from crude to sophisticated, but all of the weapons are dangerous and all are a reminder of the dangers that prisoners and their guards faced. But, when you think about it, nothing’s changed, as it is the same danger that corrections officers still face today.
Each cell is a self-contained themed display depicting some aspect of prison life: a crude plank casket used repeatedly to transport deceased prisoners whose unclaimed bodies were donated to science lies on the floor of one cell; a cell with explanations of how Colorado Department of Corrections tracks and handles gang members; one with behavioral tools such as batons, cattle prods, and razor wire; another that has a memorial to fallen correctional officers; and two cells in the basement where guards ensured unruly female inmates had minimal human contact.
But the displays are not all grim: a woman’s cell as it would have looked in the 1960s; a cell with musical instruments used by a prison band that performed at local events; one with a dentist office and infirmary; and another depicting various prison industries such as dairies, soap, textiles, and, of course, license plates.
So it wasn’t always dreary and hopeless, but, despite some of the upbeat displays, there are still reminders placed between them that prison is never a desirable place to be. One photo shows how men accused of homosexuality were forced to wear dresses while working. The “old grey mare” looks like a large carpenter’s horse, and it was used to administer floggings which were legal in Colorado during Roy Best’s tenure. On the other side, housed in a glass and wood container, is a hangman’s noose used in Colorado’s last legal hanging. It’s fair to say that prisoner punishments were obnoxious, insensitive, cruel, unconstitutional, gruesome, and deadly. Some still are, but it’s also fair to say that our penal system has made advances in prisoner treatment since the days of Roy Best.
And that’s a good thing, but the Museum of Colorado’s Prisons is a reminder of how bad it was. Can prison conditions and prisoner treatment regress back to the way they were then? Maybe. But in this era of declining violent crime rates, it may be better to examine and refine current prisoner treatment methods and let these displays remind us of what we don’t want to see happen again. They are prisoners, but they are human beings too.