"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Wyoming Journals, Ch. 12: A Tale of Two Prisons

Chapter 1

This is outlaw territory, and I’m in the thick of it.    

The iron door of my cell slams shut.   I’m in total darkness.   Almost total, I should say, because there are three pinpricks of light that capture my sight and I am powerless to avert my gaze.

Why should I?    There’s nothing to see.   No place to sit or lie down but for the cold floor.   No bed, no chair.   And it’s rather chilly in here, so I’m sure the floor would be even colder.

Solitary cell, from the outside looking in.

From the inside trying to look out.   I used a flash to get this photo because it was pitch black inside that cell.   The three tiny points of light were around that diamond-shaped plate on the door, apparently an observation hatch.

Fortunately for me, this solitary cell door isn’t locked and after a few seconds that seem like minutes, the door is opened and I step into the dim light of the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, Wyoming.   Cousin Bud and cousin Chris are waiting in the run, the walkway fronting the three tiers of cells.  

They’re smiling, probably looking to see if my brief stay in solitary rattled me.    Do I see some disappointment in their eyes?

With the exception of the gift shop at the front entrance that sells bumper stickers and tee shirts imprinted with “I DID TIME—Wyoming State Penitentiary”, as well as marked down Hallowe’en goods, this is as authentic a prison that I’ve been in, much like Alcatraz was in the early 1970s.

I suppose some upgrades have been made to accommodate the tourists who come to see this century old penitentiary, but the chipped paint on many surfaces and the unheated cell blocks belie any attempt to soften the impact of this prison.   When it first opened, there was no light and so little heat that having a cell on an upper tier was highly sought after because heat rises.

Bars, bars, and more bars.

Many years ago, a woman who lived near the prison would regularly bake cookies and take them to the prison for the convicts.   And, she would visit with a different inmate each time on a regular basis.   This is the room where she sat to visit.

She was separated from the men by a glass wall.   A man who was released from the pen immediately went to the woman's home and fatally assaulted her.    When he was returned to the prison, a group of inmates caught him on an upper tier, tied a rope around his neck, and prepared to throw him over the rail to his death.  The condemned man asked to pray first.   As the inmates forced him over the rail, one said, "Make it quick.   It's a short drop."

If a prisoner was lucky, he’d be on one of those upper tiers and maybe have a window view of the Wyoming prairies.   Otherwise, he had to wait until he was allowed outside in the yard to see the sky and a rocky hill beyond the stockade that surrounded the prison.

As for the cells themselves, prisoners were allowed to buy paint in the commissary and paint their own cells.   Some opted for murals or bright colors;  other chose black for privacy, as it made their cells harder to see inside.

A cell painted light blue by the prisoner.

The prison was retrofitted with electricity at a later date.

Painting on a cell wall.

I had to use a flash to illuminate the shower room as it had to electric lighting--then or now.

Barber pole.

One prisoner was able to make it over the wall by running and jumping up to grab the catwalk support.

Thereafter, this spiked plates were fastened to the supports.

Then we come to a most insidious part of the yard.

The men petitioned the warden for a basketball hoop, and he had one installed on this pole.

However, a line was painted on the surrounding wall near to where the basketball hoop was installed.   If the men stepped beyond that line, they would be shot.   They could only stand and look at the board that was mounted backwards to them, and never use it to sink baskets.   The above photo is what the men could see.   The "don't cross" line is immediately to my right as I took the photo.

In the next chapter, we visit an optional part of the tour, the Death House.

To be continued.


  1. You would think that, as bad as conditions were in this prison, when the prisoner got out he would go straight for fear of coming back. I know some criminals aren't too smart because a few of them ended up here more than once.

  2. I toured Alcatraz years ago. It was not a pleasant experience. When they offered to let us go into one of the solitary confinement cells, I said I would wait in the exercise yard. I am claustrophobic ... this tour was definitely not my cup of tea! Smiles, Patti and Cap