A rotary jail was an architectural design for some prisons in the Midwestern United States during the late 19th century. Cells in the jails were wedges on a platform that rotated in a carousel fashion. The surrounding of the entire level had a single opening, allowing only one cell at a time to be accessible.
Design and patent
The rotary jail was initially designed by architect William H. Brown, and built by the Haugh, Ketcham & Co. iron foundry in the Indianapolis, Indiana neighborhood of Haughville. Their 1881 patent had the following description:
The object of our inventions is to produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard ... it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of prisoners.
The pie-shaped cells rotated around a core having a sanitary plumbing system, which was considered an unusual luxury at that time. The cell block could be rotated by a single man hand-rotating a crank. It was connected to gears beneath the structure which rotated the entire cell block. The structure was supported by a ball bearing surface to allow for smooth rotation.
The jails encountered problems almost immediately with inmates' limbs being crushed or interfering with the cellblock's rotation. Most of the jails had to be welded in a fixed position and refitted with individual cell accesses. All of them, except for one, were condemned by June 22, 1939. The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, IA, remained in use until 1969. The last operating rotary jail in existence is in Crawfordsville, IN.
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Sources vary as to how many rotary jails had been built, with some sources claiming up to eighteen. Below are the known rotary jail locations:
Structures still standing (although turned into museums and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places):
- Montgomery County Jail and Sheriff's Residence, Crawfordsville, Montgomery County, Indiana
- This is the only one to still operate.
- Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa,
- Gallatin, Daviess County, Missouri; the Daviess County Rotary Jail and Sheriff's Residence was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
- Sherman, Grayson County, Texas
Jails torn down:
- Maryville, Nodaway County, Missouri
- Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky
- Maysville, DeKalb County, Missouri
- Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah
- Pueblo, Pueblo County, Colorado
- US 244358, Brown, W. H. & Haugh, B. F., "Jail or Prison", issued July 12, 1881
- Marimen, Mark; et al. (2008). Weird Indiana: Your Travel Guide to Indiana's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-4027-5452-4.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.