I’m not sure how I feel about the Old Montana Prison, built in 1871 and emptied of prisoners and staff in the late 1970s.
While sad, it also felt unhaunted and peacefully laid to rest. Inside the red castle-style walls the offices are in stasis—as if the job placement counselor and chaplain just stepped out for a coffee—and have a stark, government-issue beauty (if there was ever an oxymoron, that’s it).
Fun facts both grisly (prison yard hangings) and quirky (baseball games between the inmates and the local Deer Lodge team; the tale of Turkey Pete) are provided in a self-guided tour booklet to help you explore the grounds and the Big House. A close, ugly room they called “Siberia” held two isolation cells reserved for the most difficult of the incarcerated outlaws and vigilantes (who, mercifully, were allowed outdoors in a separate yard during daylight hours). A 600-seat theatre was built on the grounds in 1919 where well-behaved inmates enjoyed plays, concerts, boxing matches, traveling performance troupes and movies. Conversely, no one wanted to be sent to The Hole, or “The Black Box” cells. In the tag plant, prisoners really made license plates.
The Old Prison Complex is also home to the Montana Auto Museum and serves as a local gathering place. A gun show was underway on the grounds when we visited and Boy Scouts were grilling hot dogs; “Preserving Our Values” boasted their banner. (“Preserving our values…at the gun show…held at the prison,” wryly observed Ralph.)