|Prior to 1866, Oregon convicts were housed in
the prison in Portland. On May 16th of that year they were transferred
to a temporary wooden facility east of Salem and set to work
in the brickyard manufacturing the building materials for a
more permanent prison structure.
That first prison offered little in the way of securing convicts
inside its stockade and numerous prison breaks occurred in
the early years. The only fail-safe device used in those years
was "the Oregon boot" or Gardner Shackle, invented
by the warden at the Portland prison in 1866. It consisted
of a weighted boot to interfere with a prisoner's ease of
walking or running. A picture of the patented shoe stirrup
appears in Harry H. Stein's Salem, a Pictorial History of
Oregon's Capital, and Oregon Historical Society has one of
these devices in its collection.
The cornerstone for the new penitentiary was laid August
24, 1871, with appropriate ceremony. It opened for inspection
in October of the following year, the modern brick building
featured an octagonal administrative structure with three
radiating wings. A brick stockade, fourteen feet high, was
not completed until 1883, after yet another disastrous prison
The most notorious of these escape attempts was that of David
Merrill and Harry Tracy on June 9, 1902. After killing three
guards, the fugitives made good their escape and touched off
a massive Northwest manhunt of three months' duration. Salem's
daily papers kept up a running account of sightings, false
leads, reports from authorities, warnings, and criminal histories
of the two escapers. Merrill's body was found late in June.
Tracy was finally cornered in Washington and shot in August.
Both were returned and buried in the prison cemetery.
Early in the penitentiarys Salem history, it was determined
that an industrial program should be an essential part of
the prisons attempt to rehabilitate convicts. The first effort
in this regard was a brick-making machine in 1866. This industry
provided employment for the prisoners as well as revenue for
the penitentiary up until the 1920s. Other industries were
undertaken in the 1870s and 1880s which included a boot and
shoe factory, a tannery and saddle tree shop, a saw mill,
and one of the most lucrative commercial enterprises, a stove
factory. A jute factory, recommended by Governor Pennoyer
in 1893, failed to materialize.
Another venture attempted by the prison administrators was
a flax industry. In 1875 a flax mill had been established
at the penitentiary but met with difficulties from the beginning.
Not until 1916 was the industry on a firmer footing, its peak
years being in the mid-1940s. During the first World War,
prisoners were also recruited to help with flax harvest.
Currently, the major prison industry is furniture manufacturing
for the state government and state institutions. Established
by Warden Gladden in 1955, following the rebuilding of the
prison in modern concrete and steel, the furniture industry
provides the majority of prison jobs.
A prison dairy farm annex of 2,089 acres operates five miles
south of Salem for minimum security inmates and provides milk
and beef for the prison. A forest camp at Tillamook employs
another 100 inmates in reforestation and firefighting programs.
Not until 1965 were female felons housed in a separate facility
from the men, the Oregon Women's Correctional Center, adjoining
the penitentiary on the east. Prior to that year, female convicts
occupied a women's building within the confines of Oregon
State Prison. In this new facility a mattress factory was
established and inmates also have the option of working at
the Penitentiary Farm Annex.
Researched and written by Sue Bell.
Capital Journal, 22 July 1916, p. 4.
Daily Oregon Statesman, 9 June 1902 to 8 Aug. 1902, p. 1.
Oregon Blue Book, 1985-1986, p. 235-6.
Oregonian, 4 July 1883, p. 1.
Stauss, Suzanne. "Oregon State Penitentiary," Historic
Marion 35/1 (Spring 1997) : 7.
Stein, Harry H. Salem, A Pictorial History of Oregon's Capitol.
Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning Co., 1981.