Book Review: Oregon State Penitentiary

Oregon State Penitentiary, by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner and John Ritter

For whatever reason, my library has a large variety of interesting books that are mostly full of historical photographs along with captions and commentary in the Images of America series published by Arcadia Publishing, and I must admit that I really enjoy these books, as they give a good historical look at important places and contexts through old photographs and drawings.  This book fits right in with the rest of the series that I have read so far [1], even if it tells a visual story of a prison that I must admit I do not know well but which has an interesting tale to tell when it comes to the change in mentality about prisons by those who are responsible for running them.  While not an especially large prison (its maximum inmate population is about 2000, or only half to two thirds the size of a small town like Estacada), as the flagship prison and only maximum security state prison for a long time it has housed a dangerous and frequently restive prison population and has sought to control this by various means that the book helpfully shows in images.

In a bit more than 100 pages this book includes seven chapters with a great many photographs that show Oregon State Penitentiary through the years, mostly in the time before and immediately after the 1968 ruins.  It is likely that problems with getting the rights to pictures of contemporary employees made it harder to get many more current photographs, but the historical photographs are still something to appreciate.  The book begins with an introduction and a look at the prison itself inside and outside, including the various cellblocks and how much they cost to install and maintain and repair (1), which takes up almost a third of the book as a whole.  After that the authors show various rehabilitation programs that the prison had, including lumber and flax growing efforts (2) as well as a library and prisoner journal.  Two chapters cover riots and escapes, fires and floods in general (3) and then the 1968 riot (4) that destroyed the part of the prison that the prisoners most enjoyed, which makes no logical sense.  The rest of the book looks at industrial programs that helped the prison make some money back and lower costs on food (5), executions (6), and the many faces of Oregon State Penitentiary (7), including matrons and guards and a few women who worked at the prison as well.

There are at least a few ways in which a book like this is especially worthwhile.  For one, it provides a good photographic history of the sort of building that is historically important but which may not be well known by the general population of Oregon.  Rather than being a trendsetter, Oregon was generally a trend follower when it came to prisons and their design and the principles by which they were run, and one can see how expensive even a prison of only a couple thousand inmates can be when there are efforts at sabotage and when one needs to provide maximum security for violent and dangerous inmates.  It was poignant to hear of prison guards who had died after lifetimes full of struggle dealing with the criminal population, and interesting to see the ways that prisoners attempted to escape and sometimes found more than they bargained for in the effort.  Likewise, it was fascinating to see the way that prisoners were sometimes put to work in ways that sought to make a profit out of prison labor, or at least make it less of a taxpayer burden, all of which is of social interest as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Oregon State Penitentiary

  1. Catharine E. Martin says:

    Your review is very timely for the residents of Florida, whose state prison in Raiford just executed its first death row prisoner in many years. He got the needle instead of Old Sparky. He had been on death row for 30 years and had his last appeal denied just hours before his death. It took about 24 minutes for the drugs to do their job, and many of the victims families were able to witness the procedure. He was in prison longer than any of his victim had been alive.

  2. Catharine E. Martin says:

    His name was Bobby Joe Long and he killed ten people. He murdered his last victim in 1984, shortly before we moved to Florida. I remember his trial very well.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: USS Lexington (CV/CVA-16) | Edge Induced Cohesion

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