In Council Bluffs, you can take your kids to jail. Even put them in a cell and close the gate. You can’t lock it up though and you can’t leave them overnight. However, you might find that your kids actually enjoy it. In fact, my experience has been that teenagers will love it.
The Squirrel Cage Jailhouse is the world’s only three-story rotary jail and it offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era of American history. This jailhouse, located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was built in 1885 and operated until 1969. Today, the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse remains a popular tourist attraction and a valuable reminder of America’s evolving prison system.
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The jail was an innovative solution to minimize the number of people needed to staff a prison. The revolving cell design allowed maximum space utilization, and the lack of corners prevented prisoners from hiding or plotting escapes. Each prisoner was located in a pie-shaped portion of the cylinder. There was only one exit and the entire cylinder had to be rotated by the guard with a hand crank to get the cylinder to line up with the exit. This allowed them to have a minimum number of security guards with high security, as they considered the chances of escape to be minimal.
After touring a comparable facility (although only 1 story with 8 cells) in Maysville, Missouri, the town of Council Bluffs passed a bond and had the jail built in 1885. At the time, it was actually seen as “too nice” for prisoners. In fact, it was referred to as “Hotel Guittar”, referring to Sheriff Guittar who ran the facility. In 1885, very few residents had their own toilet, but that was the case in their new prison. In addition, the exterior of the building certainly doesn’t seem threatening at all. With its elaborate brickwork and arched windows, it is not menacing at all.
Despite the innovative design to minimize the number of security guards, several challenges existed. The jail that Council Bluffs was modeled from (Maysville, Missouri) was closed due to prisoner safety. In Maysville, a prisoner’s head was crushed by the bars as the cells rotated. This led to the cells being welded in place in Maysville. The same concerns were also raised in Council Bluffs, but when presented with a bond to build a new jail in 1910, local voters opted to keep the existing 3-story rotating jail. Sanitary conditions were another concern, as all of the cells had their own toilet which was in the middle of the cylinder. The stench from the sewage proved to be a challenge. Maintenance was also an ongoing issue. The main rotating cylinder was 90,000 pounds and was very challenging to keep balanced.
Going through old newspapers, such as Sept 18, 1949, Council Bluffs Nonpareil highlights the ongoing concern and desire to replace the squirrel cage jail. Despite having a design that should minimize guards and maximize security, numerous inmates were breaking out of prison each year. Each year, grand juries would recommend that the jailhouse be replaced, but each year it would continue to be used. It took until 1960 before the rotary device was disabled – as they had problems rotating the cells to retrieve the body of an inmate who had died of natural causes. It took two days to retrieve the body and that was apparently the last time the cells were turned. Even though the rotary devices were disabled, they made some modifications and they continued to use the prison for nine more years.
Visiting the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse provides a unique opportunity to experience history in a physical setting. The jailhouse offers several types of tours, including guided tours, self-guided tours, and flashlight tours. During these tours, visitors can explore the jail and learn about its history, including the stories of its most famous inmates. Visitors can also see artifacts from the jail’s history, including uniforms and documents.
Preservation efforts have ensured that the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse remains a symbol of American history. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and efforts have been made to preserve the building’s original design and character. While challenges remain in preserving the jailhouse, its continued existence is a testament to the determination and ingenuity of the people who built it.
To learn more about the history of the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Tales from the Squirrel Cage Jail by Ryan Roenfeld and Richard Warner, as its contains a complete history of the jailhouse.
What about the statement that teenagers might love this place?
Yes, my experience was that teenagers will getting their cell phones out and taking more selfies than you could imagine (and yes, that says a lot). They will be wandering the cells, looking for cells where the doors close and looking for the ultimate selfie to make them look “bad”
Here’s a quote from the 1949 Council Bluffs Nonpereil newspaper that provides an excellent explanation of how the jailhouse works.
Internal arrangement of the jail is complicated. The east side of the building is a series of rooms flanking a center hallway. Iron steps connect the floors. The jailer’s quarters and the kitchen are on the first floor.
A temporary lockup room for short-time prisoners and a woman’s room are on the second floor. The third floor is for trusties. On the third floor are some musty rooms apparently used at one time for living quarters.
The back part of the jail consists of a square room. In the center is a vertical cylinder about 20 feet in diameter and three floors high, called the “squirrel cage.” Each floor has 10 cells containing two bunks each.
The layers of the squirrel cage are divided into wedge shaped cells similar to a cut pie. The entire “squirrel cage” is enclosed in a circle of heavy iron bars. There is only one opening on each floor through outer circle of bars.
When men are taken from their cells or returned to the them, the jailer has to turn the immense cage around by hand crank, merry-go-round fashion. When a cell door reaches the master door, the prisoner can step through the two doors and leave his cell.
During the day, prisoner are placed in the “bull pen”, a three story high open room at the west side. At night, each man steps into his cell and is cranked around for the night. Each flightless cell is made entirely of steel.Description of the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse from the Council Bluffs Nonpareil in 1949