Tucked away in the tiny blue-collar hamlet of Crawfordsville in West Central Indiana, is a 100 year old marvel of criminal justice innovation that, while it never really caught on, is a true engineering feat.
The Old Jail Museum features the only working rotary jail system in the United States. Opened in 1882, as a solution for housing prisoners safely and efficiently. By hand cranking a mechanism on which a two-tiered turn table pivoted, a jailer could bring one of 16 pie shaped cells to a single opening to allow a prisoner in or out. Architects William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh of Indianapolis believed their patented design would help maintain the strict Victorian social order – reducing contact with (and the resulting danger of) inmates.
Tours begin every hour, last about an hour and cost $3 per adult. We arrived fifteen minutes before the next scheduled tour and were lucky enough to spend some with a featured artist and volunteer Madeline Shaver. Madeline gave us an abbreviated tour of the down stairs while the previous tour finished up. She had special insight into the workings of the jail as her husband spent many years as deputy sheriff, working within these walls.
But, once Madeline heard our story, we spent the bulk of our moments together hearing about her passion for travel. She backpacked across Europe in her 60s, visited Mexico and Canada with her husband, and is only three states shy of seeing all 50 – an accomplishment only 2 percent of Americans can claim. She was sweet woman who remains passionate about her dreams and excited about each and every new adventure – we can only be so lucky when we retire.
Soon the first tour was complete and the Museum’s new Director, Gabriela Sincich, arrived to guide our tour. The tour began with an overview of the residential portion of the building which acted as the spacious show home of the elected sheriff. Gabriela revealed the project had a budget of $26,000 (the equivalent of $3.5 million in today’s dollars) but the original plans failed to include a kitchen so the project actually cost in excess of $30,000, which ultimately cost the championing council members their seats in the next election.
The second half of the tour delved into the operation of the jail including a demonstration of the hand crank mechanism that was used to turn over 16 tons of steel. Gabriela spent time sharing details about the day-to-day life of the prisoners, most of which was spent in cramped cells that were poorly insulated from the weather. One prisoner actually froze to death in the early 1900s. The prisoners spent all their time in these cells with no allotted “outside time” and numerous prisoners suffered broken arms, legs and fingers when caught in the bars during a rotation.
In 1973, this jail was finally closed due to disrepair and scheduled for demolition. In 1975, a foundation was created to turn it into a museum and it has been operating as such since.
This is a very through and interesting tour for anyone interested in public policy, engineering or criminal justice. But more importantly, it represents a one-of-a-kind historical attraction at a very reasonable price. For more information or to plan a tour, visit their website at http://www.rotaryjailmuseum.org/