The penitentiary was established April 12, 1872, by the Iowa legislature. The Anamosa Eureka reported that the question, after being discussed two years before, was brought before the legislature in the shape of a bill prepared by Jones County Senator John McKean. The legislation that was passed stated that the penitentiary should be established at, or near, the stone quarries near Anamosa and that three commissioners, chosen by the general assembly should select the exact location - after 70 acres of land was donated to the cause. Anamosa citizen Dr. N. G. Sales donated 61 acres of land across the Buffalo, and several town lots.
Others in the community who also aided by giving lots and aiding financially were: John Tasker, B.F. Shaw, C.H. Lull, T.W. Shapley, E.C. Holt, G.W. Field, J.S. McClure, H.C. Metcalf, R.N. Fowler, T.R. Ercanbrack, Milton Remley and J.L. Sheean.
Dr. Sales' bid to the state for his 80-acre quarry was accepted for $15,000, which was the ceiling placed on the bids.
Work was started on the penitentiary here in August 1872 by purchasing lumber at Clinton, Iowa, to make a high stockade around the yard and temporary buildings at the prison and at the quarry. A small, stone building with temporary wooden cells was erected with hired labor. In January 1873, 64 cell doors were purchased for $3,100. These were later used in the institution.
May 13, 1873, 20 convicts were transferred from Ft. Madison penitentiary and were numbered from No. 1 to No. 20, No. 21 was sentenced from Jones County. These 21 convicts were temporarily housed in the wooden cells and were employed at the quarries in preparation of work on the permanent structure.
The first escape from the reformatory was about two weeks later, June 2, 1873. Three men escaped from the quarries. (Had they seen the plans of the gigantic institution they had to build?) These three, C.C. Hardin, 23; Andrew Costa, 26, and Charles Hatfield, 22, had a $300 reward on their heads and the local papers warned farmers to look after their horses, as the escapees were "deperadoes."
In July 1874, W. Roberts of Moberly, Missouri, owner of a meat market, was sitting in his shop reading his paper, when he was interrupted by the query, 'Do you have any bologna?'. Before he could answer, the man turned, darted out the door, and began a brisk walk up the sidewalk. Roberts, thinking this was a strange thing to do, stepped to the door and watched the man. Upon seeing him, he then had the answer. Costa's mistake was to attempt to buy bologna from a former guard at the prison in Anamosa. Roberts immediately sent word to the city marshal and they both started in pursuit.
Costa resisted at first, but the Derringer "brought him to time". They telegraphed the warden at Fort Madison and the warden ordered him brought in at once. The other two prisoners had been previously picked up in Iowa.
On September 30, 1873, work was begun on the first permanent building, called 'Work Shop No. 1'. This was a large two story building. When completed, the iron doors were transferred to this building. Upon completion of the first permanent cells, these doors were again transferred. The first building completed housed the first dining room, chapel, library, hospital and it had other uses as well.
In December of 1873, the records show that the first death occurred. His name was George Williams and he was buried on an elevation facing the rising sun, on state-owned property. Since that time, deceased inmates who are not claimed are buried in this cemetery. At first, the graves were marked by both foot and headstones.
In May 1873, Martin Heisey was selected as the first warden of the institution. Since that time only a dozen wardens have served. Wardens who have served a Anamosa and their dates of starting were: A.E. Martin, April 1, 1876; Marquis Barr, April 1 1886; P.W. Madden, April 1, 1892; William A. Hunter, April 1, 1898; Marquis Barr (second time), November 1, 1906; Charles C. McClaughry, January 1, 1912; J.N. Baumel, January 12, 1918; C.H. Ireland, January 1, 1932; W.H. Frazer, September 1, 1933; Foss Davis, January 1, 1940; Ray Purcell, June 26, 1953; Charles Haugh, July 1, 1964; and Calvin Auger, September 1, 1973. Mr. Auger died in November of 1987. John A. Thalacker was appointed warden on March 4, 1988.
During Warden Heisey's term, the first workshop was built and the southeast corner of the wall was erected. The number of convicts working was small, and comparatively slow progress was made.
Under Warden Martin, due to change in the law which redistricted the state and allowed more convicted felons to be sent to Anamosa, more help was available and the work advanced more rapidly. Under Mr. Martin the massive wall was completed around the main yard. The wall, composed of immense stone, enclosed an area 755 ft. east and west, and 639 ft. north and south, and contained nearly 12 acres. The foundation was laid 14 feet below the surface of the ground and is 12 ft. at the bottom and 7 ft. wide at the surface of the ground. It rises 28 above the ground and is 4 ft. wide at the top. The foundation was laid upon piles driven 15 ft. further down at the northwest corner.
This was needed when it was discovered in 1882 that the corner was firmly planted in a bed of quick-sand. It was necessary to dig down 20 to 30 feet to find proper footing for the foundation wall. To the consternation of all, it was discovered that an old creek bed had once coursed through this place, along with the quick sand. The only answer, at the time, was to rig up a steam pile-driver to drive large timbers from 12 to 15 feet long, into the mire. The timbers were driven as thick as they could stand, and when they struck solid ground, they were sawed off, as it was also discovered that the ground had a considerable slope along the former creek bed.
When the work was completed at this point, the wall was over 60 feet high, with over half of it below the surface of the ground. Over 100 feet or more of the quick-sand needed to be crossed. A bed of concrete was laid on the piles on which the wall was built.
In warden Martin's Biennial Report in August 1883, he expressed his sentiments, as he had in his prior report, that the state of Iowa ceased to be humane when it took one dollar more of each convict's earnings than was needed for his support. He recommended that the wages of a prisoner should be fixed at a fair figure, and every dollar he earned beyond his support should be held in a fund for the released prisoner's use, or for the benefit of his family. In his previous report, the warden stated that each convict's expenses was 48 cents per day and that the state should derive 48 cents a day from the industry of each man and no more. He noted that the plan of deducting a certain percent from a convict's term, for good behavior, involved the same principle and was working well.
This warden's thinking was years ahead of its time. In his 1883 report, he noted that there were 11 women in the prison for which there was no building. There were also three insane prisoners and a special place was needed for them. It was reported that electric lights had been used since December 1882. Of the $176,484 appropriated since 1876, there was a balance of $19,000.
Under Warden Martin's administration the first quarry was sold and a second purchased.
In 1884, the Anamosa institution's official name was change from, 'Additional Penitentiary' to 'State Penitentiary' and in 1907 it was officially changed to 'Reformatory' where first offenders from 16 to 30 years old were placed.
In June 1888, one of the 16 females incarcerated at the Anamosa penitentiary escaped. She was serving an 18-year sentence for poisoning her husband. She had made a man's coat and pants out of the grey flannel used for the women's winter dresses and wore a black skull cap and was 'adorned' with a black mustache.
To make her escape form the prison, she cut one of the bars of the window where the females were kept, attached a rope made from a blanket, and descended to the ground. Her next move was to scale the 27 foot wall. She did this by using a guy-rope holding one of the derricks being used in construction. She may have escaped for good, but she headed toward Monticello and misinterpreted a sign board, about three miles out of Anamosa, and returned to the city.
The following night, about 11 o'clock, she meandered up main street, casually twirling her mustache, when she was observed by Charles Buckner, who happened to be a guard at the prison, and lived upstairs over the Sheridan & Hogan's millinery store. He followed her up South Ford Street and when she got to First Street he took her in charge - much against her will - and she was returned to the penitentiary.
Periodically, the Men's Reformatory, due to it's physical structure, housed prisoners for the U.S. government. One such instance was in 1893, when 10 prisoners were brought in by train from Texas. Five deputy U.S. Marshals escorted the men. According to the Anamosa Eureka, each marshal wore a 'brace of heavy Colt revolvers and in dress and style were typical Texans', though 'pleasant and affable gentlemen.'
The prisoners were reportedly members of a band of outlaws and were officers in 'Garza's army' and were 'among the most noted and dangerous class of desperadoes known to the criminal annals of the time.'
In the summer of 1901, the reformatory administration building was nearing completion. The Eureka described the lions at the entrance as weighing five tons each, with the stone taken from the Scott Joslin quarry. The paper reported that the floors were laid with scrap marble, cut in regular forms. "some estimate of the numbers can be inferred from the fact that there are 37,000 pieces in the second story hallway and 21,000 in the dining room adjoining."
In February 1907, a cob pipe factory was a going concern. The cobs were sent from Missouri and it was hoped to plan and experiment for the raising of that corn here. However, by June, the cob factory was nothing but a pipe-dream.
In 1904, according to the Warden Hunter's Biennial Report, as published in the Eureka, the total cost of maintaining the prison since the beginning, 30 years before, included 5,092 prisoners, and $852,590 was spent.
The institution passed under the Board of Control April 1, 1898.
A separate institution for women was constructed at Rockwell City in 1918.
In 1913, work was started on the deputy warden's house. It was to be a seven-room structure and would occupy the lot just south of the corner where the old Catholic school house then stood.
In 1914 the old prison graveyard was moved to its present site, due to the needed space for the prison farms. There were approximately 35 bodies moved to the new burial grounds.
In August 1927 the State Board of Control started working on plans to find employment for the nearly 500 inmates who had been working at the apron factory located inside the prison. This was due to the pressure put on legislators regarding the outside interests which were using the facilities. The Board needed to find something which would keep the men employed while not interfering with outside labor. The institution had the license plate division and then a soap factory was initiated. The Board planned to install machinery for the making of all the clothing needed by confined persons across the state.
Billed as the largest barn in the state, the stone barn north of the reformatory was completed in August 1929. In October a public dance, attended by 250 couples, was held through special permission of the Board of Control. A heavy downpour of rain kept attendance down as many could not negotiate the road. Music was furnished by the reformatory's 12 piece band.
The barn cost $465,000 to build, excluding labor.
In 1886 the building for the criminally insane and the female department were completed. This building was constructed under one roof with a solid wall separating the two departments. Later the hospital portion was torn down and rebuilt. Work was started in 1935 but in 1939 the building was still just a shell, due to lack of funding. It was completed in the early 1940's.
In 1934, during the depression years, the inmate population climbed to a record-high of 1,489. During the latter years of World War II, when certain men were allowed to volunteer for the service, the population dropped to 400 men. If these men received an honorable discharge from the service, further jail time was exonerated. The work at the quarries ended at this time. The institution by then was pretty much completed.
Quoting from the handbook put out byu the Division of Correctional Services (the reformatory is currently under the Department of Corrections) published in 1984: "The Iowa Men's Reformatory, located at Anamosa, was established in 1872. The entire institution was built using stone from the nearby quarries. Even today, structural change or modification involves use of this stone, though major development ceased in 1936."
The following is being taken from the 1938 special edition of the Eureka editorial by C.L. "Cliff" Niles and his version of early reformatory times. "The writer was born in the house now occupied by A.L. Remley on North Garnavillo street. The land between that house and the men's reformatory was then practically all pasture. When the Iowa State Penitentiary was located here they brought some convicts from Ft. Madison to build the institution. First, they built a wooden stockade around the grounds about where the present stone wall is located. They set high posts in the ground and ran stringers of 2x6 and nailed plank to them up and down about 10 feet high. The thing that we could never understand was that they nailed the plank on the outside and every once in a while the convicts would rush the stockade, kick off a plank and away they would go. The guards in those days used shot guns loaded with buck shot.
"One time, the convicts rushed the east gate and ran up the railroad track. The guards above the gate were shooting at them. All stopped but one and he was beating it up the track and the more they shot, the faster he ran. One of the guards thought that he must be over-shooting him and shot just behind him and he fell.
"One investigation they found that he had Century Magazines two-deep all over his neck, back, and legs and just one buck shot hit his heel where there were no magazines and brought him down.
"Heisey was then warden and built a house on South Ford Street where the brick house owned by Rollie Houstman (did he mean Rollie McBride?) is now located and lived there several years. The house was partially burned and was moved across the street and rebuilt and is owned by Mrs. Edna Watters." (The house just north of the city hall that was torn down.)
The reformatory employs over 400 full-time employees including Iowa State Industries, a non-tax supported work program. Other civilian staff are employed in security, treatment, dietary, business services, agriculture, and administration. The institution has a total of 1,465 acres, 13 within the walls.
The resident population ranges from 840-1,000. The majority are medium security and first-time felony offenders, although approximately 40 percent have committed crimes against persons.
The purpose of the reformatory is to protect society from those who violate its laws by providing a confinement-type setting. It must be remembered, however, that 99 per cent of those incarcerated will return to society; in most cases, less than two years after their admission. The primary objective is to release individuals from the institution who have learned to cope with their problems and live within the rules of society.
Each new resident is first admitted to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center near Oakdale, Iowa, for a three-week reception process that includes fingerprinting, photographing, and the issuing of clothing. Physical, dental and eye examinations are also completed at that time. In addition, a psychological evaluation and classification are also done that determines which one of the seven correctional institutions in the state would be the most appropriate placement for the resident in terms of his security and treatment needs.