The Colorado Women’s Prison in Cañon City was built in 1935, after three previous women’s buildings at the State Penitentiary had been appropriated for other uses. Standing just east of the penitentiary walls, the women’s prison housed female inmates from Colorado and several other states until the 1960s, when it became overcrowded and a new Women’s Correctional Facility was constructed. In the 1980s the old women’s prison was converted into the Museum of Colorado Prisons, which preserves the history of Colorado correctional facilities.
Early Women’s Prisons
In June 1871 the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary opened in Cañon City. In 1876 it became the State Penitentiary, which has been located in the area ever since. The facility housed mostly male inmates, with female inmates usually being kept in small county jails run by local sheriffs and their wives. The first woman sent to the penitentiary, Mary Solander, arrived in March 1873 after being sentenced to three years for manslaughter. She probably posed a problem for the prison administration, which was not used to dealing with women.
The presence of female inmates in a primarily male prison was a continuing problem. By the middle of the 1880s, six women had been sent to the State Penitentiary. As a result, in 1884 the state’s first separate women’s prison was built near the north wall of the penitentiary grounds. It was a small building, with just six cells, but it made Colorado one of the first states in the Rocky Mountains to have a dedicated prison for women.
By the early 1890s, the male prison population was outgrowing the original penitentiary building. In 1893, in order to free up the existing women’s prison to house male inmates, the state legislature appropriated $10,000 to the prison’s female department for a new building outside the penitentiary walls. This two-story, forty-cell women’s prison was completed in 1896, after the state provided an additional $2,500 to cover construction costs.
The 1896 women’s prison housed inmates for about a dozen years. In 1908 another women’s building was added just to the east. It also had two stories and forty cells, and was surrounded by a new wall. The 1896 building was converted into the penitentiary’s hospital, a role that it still serves today.
In the 1920s the prison population increased rapidly, resulting in severe overcrowding. The famous 1929 riots that rocked the penitentiary were a clear symptom of the problem. Warden F. E. Crawford wanted to expand the facility, but he had no room—a long hill blocked expansion to the west, and the women’s prison stood in the way to the east. Crawford asked the state legislature for money to build a new women’s prison, but before the plan came to fruition he was removed from office for his handling of the 1929 riots.
In 1932 the Board of Corrections recommended that a new women’s prison be built just east of the main prison walls and the existing women’s prison be converted to house the most disruptive male inmates. Under the new warden, Roy Best, inmates started to build the new women’s prison in 1934. It cost about $27,380 and was completed in 1935. At thirty cells, it was actually smaller than the previous women’s building, clearly the result of a belief that the number of female prisoners would stay low. With its smooth stucco facade and low-pitched roof, the Mediterranean-inspired design of the women’s prison influenced later Mediterranean-style buildings at other prison facilities in Fremont County.
In the early twentieth century, when judges had more latitude in sentencing than they do today, women tended to be convicted of fewer violent crimes and to receive shorter sentences than men. The inmates in the women’s prison were, however, the most serious offenders in the state, since lesser offenders were often kept in county jails. Three matrons worked round-the-clock shifts to administer the prison, guard the inmates, and attend to their needs.
The prison offered few vocational opportunities or work programs for female inmates. Instead, inmates usually spent their time doing the domestic work necessary to keep the prison functioning, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Conditions in the women’s prison, however, were generally considered above average for a prison at the time. The inmates were allowed to work in the prison’s flower and vegetable gardens. Volunteers from outside the prison came to teach sewing, music, and other skills.
Not all states had women’s prisons, so Colorado sometimes housed female inmates from Wyoming, Utah, and South Dakota. By 1960, overcrowding became a problem, and the state had to stop accepting out-of-state inmates. Soon the building was no longer adequate to hold Colorado’s female inmates. The state spent $1.1 million to build the new, larger Women’s Correctional Facility nearby with ninety beds. It opened in January 1968, when forty-two women were transferred there from the existing prison.
After the new Women’s Correctional Facility opened, the old building housed protective-custody male inmates until 1978. In 1979 the building was used for SWAT team training. After that, the Department of Corrections could no longer afford to maintain it, so it stood vacant.
In 1982 local citizens came up with the idea of turning the women’s building into a prison museum, and idea that quickly gained traction. Soon the state legislature passed a bill allowing the Department of Corrections to lease the building to Cañon City, which could then sublease it to the museum. After an extensive fundraising campaign, the building was renovated to stabilize the structure, add new heating and lighting systems, and improve visitor access.
The museum opened to the public in June 1988. Each of the original thirty cells houses exhibits on topics such as prison life, famous inmates, the 1929 riots, and Warden Roy Best. More than 20,000 people visit the museum each year.