Stillwater Prison: a time capsule

The Minnesota State Correctional Facility at Stillwater has stood the test of time -- though 100 years old, it’s still in full operation. The facility, which stands in Bayport, Minn. holds 1,638 inmates. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

To enter the Stillwater Prison, a visitor passes through the security scanning area, called “the bubble,” followed by four sets of gates, before arriving in the core of the prison. From there, a security desk sits between the four cell blocks, which look to be straight out of a movie set, and haven’t changed much since they were built. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Stillwater Prison Warden Michelle Smith spoke in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the prison. Smith toted the facility’s successes with education programs for inmates, and spoke of the challenges of maintaining a century-old building. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

As of Friday, May 2, the Stillwater Prison has been running non-stop, 24 hours a day, for the past 100 years.

Though by no means a cheerful place, the Victorian-era building does hold a certain charm. Even inside the main hallway where prisoners are transported, touches like lavender trim, worn tile floors, yellow brick walls and oak rails make it easily identifiable as a piece of history.

The place was partially built by prisoners, who essentially built the facility that would eventually house some of them.

The iconic red brick building, with giant cast-iron gates, has held a number of high-profile criminals over the years, including the Young brothers, who killed six police officers in Missouri on Jan. 2, 1932.

Entering through the security scanning area, called “the bubble,” a visitor then passes through four sets of gates before arriving in the core of the prison. From there, a security desk sits between the four cell blocks, which look to be straight out of a movie set, and haven’t changed much since they were built.

The inmates’ small cells face out into long corridors and large translucent (but not transparent) windows. The only major changes to the relic have been the addition of surveillance cameras, and the double-bunking of most of the cells in 1997, bringing the prison’s capacity up to its current 1,638 inmates, all of whom are male and have been booked on felony charges. The facility now houses prisoners from level 2 to level 4, just shy of the maximum security level 5. The nearby Oak Park Heights facility was designed for level 5 inmates.

One prisoner could be seen sitting in a chair in his cell, mashing up graham crackers for a peanut butter graham cracker cake he planned to make. A small tube television was tuned to “American Dad,” an animated comedy show, though it was mostly on for background, he said. A photo of what looked to be his parents hung over his tiny desk.

Next door, a neatly organized cell displayed the inmate’s possessions -- a few carefully folded towels and a shelf full of everyday items and snacks: a box of Swiss Cake Rolls, some ramen, laundry detergent, toothpaste.

In the next cell over, a bulletin board filled with magazine photos of scantily clad women hung above the bed.

Rare look inside

Prison administrators took time May 2 to step back and reflect on 100 years of operation. The facility was opened up for tours for 1,700 visitors, first for media, and later for friends and family of the 529 prison staff.

The place was mostly spick and span -- with more offenders on-site than there are in-prison industry jobs for them, inmates will get assigned to cleaning duties.

“We have 1,600 offenders; there’s no reason for it to be dirty,” said Assistant Warden Mary McComb. “They do care about their environment.”

The last time a tour was given was back in 2008. Having the public inside means inmates stay in their cells an extra three to four hours.

Warden Michelle Smith reflected on the changes the prison has seen over the years.

“100 years ago, I think prisoners were put in prison and warehoused, essentially,” she said.

“Now ... our big push is education and programming.” Inmates are offered everything from chemical dependency treatment to GED classes and training for work they might do when they get out.

As Smith noted, it’s worth the investment to ensure inmates don’t leave with the same problems and lack of skills they arrived with; most the offenders on the premises will be released.

That’s why staff who work with prisoners on those issues probably feel more like educators and mentors than their long-ago predecessors.

“This is a calling,” said Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, who maintains the staff don’t work at the prison just for a paycheck.

Day in the life

On a typical day, an inmate wakes up, eats breakfast, and goes to work or school, McComb said.

He’ll go back to his cell for a bit before heading to lunch, and then return to work or school. After supper, he can spend time as he likes, in recreation activities, such as playing basketball in the prison’s gymnasium; using the library; meeting in the small multi-faith religious space or taking evening classes.

The inmates also fill in their days with visits from friends and family -- they’re allowed 16 hours per month in an area that looks a lot like a medical facility waiting room, with molded plastic chairs. Little contact is allowed with visitors: just a quick embrace and kiss on the cheek.

One-stop shop

“Essentially, our prison is like a small city,” McComb says, pointing out the classrooms, a health clinic, a library, a gym, a cafeteria, and a religious space.

In the “industry” area, inmates work with metal products, wood products, furniture construction, upholstery, office-system furniture, distribution and installation services, warehousing, and subcontract work.

A functioning health clinic looks small but will often see 120 inmates a day.

A small but well-kept library on-site holds a variety of fiction books, and feels pretty much the same as any other library. The only difference is that the computers don’t have any internet access.

The cafeteria, filled with windows on three sides, feeds all the inmates in two shifts. The meals are planned by a dietician and inmates are even offered a health-food-oriented option.

The main meal of the day May 2 was a simple classic: grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Prison industry has Hollywood ties

In 1939, Jimmy Cagney portrayed an unjustly convicted man sent to a prison with a twine-making industry like Stillwater’s.

Prison “industries” -- ways to keep inmates occupied, help them learn skills and generate some funds for the facility -- aren’t just the stereotypical “making license plates.” And in Stillwater lore, there’s pride in the role the prison’s industry played in a local newsman’s novel and a 1939 Warner Bros. movie.

Stillwater has a long history of making twine, in some accounts, stretching back to its prior jail in the 1890s. “Stillwater Twine” was sold with other agricultural products made by inmates, from hay rakes and wagons to heavy equipment such as corn harvesters and cultivators.

The twine industry caught the attention of Jerome Odium, editor of the Minneapolis News in the mid-’30s. He wrote a pot-boiler of a novel, about a journalist framed for a crime and sent to prison, where he has to survive while he tries to prove his innocence.

The book caught the attention of Warner Bros. Studios, then in its heyday of “underworld” films.

According to Hollywood news in the Feb. 11, 1939 “Evening Independent” of St. Petersburg, Fla., the studio shipped out a Stillwater industry manager to make sure every strand of the twine operation was true-to-life.

“William Buckley has been borrowed from Stillwater Prison in Minnesota to act as supervisor of twine mill scenes in the picture,” the paper reported. “Buckley is civilian supervisor of the real prison’s mill.”

The twine room is the setting for some of the film’s most pivotal scenes, as prisoners mingle on the job. There, Cagney’s character is nearly killed by a thrown knife; meets George Raft’s racketeer, who may be able to help him; and finally figures out who framed him while backed by bales of twine.

Supposedly Cagney and Raft were trained to actually make twine on the equipment as they barked their gangster-film lines back and forth. A Pittsburgh Press account of the process maintains “James Cagney and George Raft may be on top of their profession as actors, but they would hardly be able to make a living if forced to spin twine for three meals a day.” After three weeks, they’d turned out several thousand spools of twine; Cagney is quoted as saying “Inspectors agree, it is pretty sloppy work. But it photographs well enough.”

When last heard of, the twine had been pushed to one side of the soundstage and was labeled “third grade.”

The movie may have given audiences -- and actors -- a look at twine-making, but it was no puff piece for prisons. Cagney’s character is stripped and handcuffed to the bars of his cell and kept in solitary confinement until his justifiable rage begins to warp his mind.

He won accolades for the intensity of his acting in an otherwise of-its-kind picture, and author Odium stayed out in Hollywood, trading newspapering for screenwriting.

At Stillwater, twine and farm equipment industries gave way in the 1980s to a different economy’s tools: filing equipment and office furniture.

–Holly Wenzel


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