A few years ago, riding from somewhere to somewhere else, Mike and I spent the night in Deer Lodge Montana. Riding into town at dusk, we turned a corner and saw what appeared to be a castle. A closer look revealed barbed wire and sentry turrets. This imposing structure was the old Montana State Prison, originally opened in 1871 and overcrowded nearly from day one, it was the site of deplorable conditions, riots, and the occasional humorous story.
The prisoners happily vacated the these antiquated digs and moved in to a modern prison in 1979. New inmates began showing up shortly afterward, although in this case their stays were short and they paid to get in. Mike and I joined these ranks today by walking in the front door and plunking down $9 apiece (with AAA discount!) to enjoy an afternoon with old cars and iron bars.
This prison complex has a much different feel to it than Alcatraz (one of the few other prison museums we’ve visited). Because Alcatraz was left derelict for many years, it has a feeling of separation from its time as a prison. The Old Montana State Prison doesn’t have that softening of years and layering of other experiences. It went directly from being a prison to being a museum with very little “restoration” done. There is peeling paint hanging from ceilings, the sound of dripping water greets your entry into the basement showers and the cold is bitter even though summer sun is warm outside, rust runs down brick like dried blood, voices echo through hallways, and solid steel doors can still swing shut on dark cells with a touch (thankfully locks have been disabled).
Memorada are push-pinned to the walls of offices where eye-ease-green phones and original log books sit on scarred government-issue desks.
This was not a good place to be. Even in its final years and after reforms the place was always either too cold or too hot, unsafe for inmates and jailers alike, and generally a miserable spot to spend time.
Although not exactly the perfect place to bring the kids on a sunny summer afternoon, if they’re old enough and thoughtful enough to comprehend what is being presented, it could be something the entire family remembers for many years.
In the end, Mike and I were left wondering how the heck anyone could have stayed sane working or living here, and how in the world any of the prisoners could have even considered re-offending once they got out.