Prison and Prairie

I walk through the front door of the Wyoming Frontier Penitentiary. Established in 1881 and closed in 1981, it cuts an imposing gothic like figure on a side street in Rawlins, WY. Romanesque in structure, it is eerie. I close my eyes, listen to the wind outside and imagine…….walking through the door that every inmate did. He could have been a cattle rustler, a thief, a murderer. Processed in a small room, his picture is taken. He is shuttled to the next room. Dimly lit, this room is cold and it is where he would have been strip searched then hosed down and de-liced. It also had a punishment pole. Handcuffed to it the worst offenders would be beaten with rubber hoses. A sliding window would have been opened in the door so that other inmates could hear the screams. This was 1910. Taken to A-block and put in #12 on the ground floor. His room, a mere 5×8. A wooden bed, a straw mattress, a wool blanket and pillow, a sink and toilet. There was no hot water. He would have taken cold showers every day….for years. The south facing cells were coveted. Sun would often filter in and somewhat warm the inner, dark cell block. The windows were high which allowed those inmates on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th levels to see out to nothing but a vast, empty prairie, yet it would be their lifeline, their hope. At the far end of the block still sits a barber chair, confined to a larger cell. It looks lonely with its leather aged and fading, cracking like the walls surrounding this place. On the north side of A-block there is little light. The cells are dark, pitch black in most cases. Standing in them you can see out but for someone walking by, you are invisible, swallowed up in darkness. The odor here is strong. 100 years of human sweat, blood, urine. Many of the old mattresses still remain. It is cold. He must have spent many nights praying for the sunlight. Praying to get sent to the infirmary where it would be warmer. Praying for a release so he could return to the prairie and the endless skies of Wyoming. In the  silence I hear the voices and catch whispers. I see the shadows dancing….To the “yard” I would walk, following him. A baseball field long overgrown with a rusty backstop. Endless games won and lost. Guard towers in each corner watching, waiting, anticipating perhaps, that jump for freedom. I follow him. To death row. 15 would die in this place. 9 by hanging and 6 by the gas chamber. I cannot comprehend the feeling of despair, anguish and desperation in that room as the clock ticked down. I follow him. To the cafeteria. Huge ovens and old stoves, murals on the wall and no matter where I stand, the bighorn sheep eyes are still watching me. I follow him. To C-block, more modern now, more light and warmer. There are stories of escape and recaptures. I hear the whispers and know I must go. Down the dark walkway again past those cells that reach out to tell the story of those they kept within. I leave him then. I walk out into the sunlight and see the trees and flowers and feel the breeze and know it is time to move on.

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2 Responses to “Prison and Prairie”

  1. Linda Wright Says:

    Thank you for sharing this amazing experience you had. Godspeed to you my friend during your time of travel. Rainbows all around you always. 😉

  2. Ken BeLieu Says:

    I arranged for your stay at Roosevelt, WA which was a long way back down the road. I wish I had been able to see you pass through town. I read your blog frequently and find something powerful and moving in what you are doing. I also note that your writing stlye is growing stronger with the miles. You know, Mike, there’s a book in this adventure, and I hope you will take the time to write it. God bless you in this endeavor. Ken

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