The Stillwater prison was Minnesota’s first

historical photo of brick prison

Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, Minnesota’s oldest prison, was built in Stillwater as the Territorial Prison in 1853. It moved to a location in what is now Bayport between 1910 and 1914. MCF-Stillwater has been the site of multiple rebellions and also publishes the Prison Mirror, likely the oldest continuously operated prisoner newspaper in the US.

When European settlers first colonized the Dakota and Ojibwe land that would become the state of Minnesota, people accused of breaking territorial law were sent to Fort Snelling. Military guards watched them, but they often escaped before they were sentenced. Minnesota Territory’s legislature requested money from the federal government to build a prison in 1849, and Congress approved the request in 1850.

Territorial officials chose to build the prison on a marshy piece of land in Stillwater, a settler-colonial St. Croix Valley hub, and the newly completed stone prison received its first prisoners in 1854. It held both men and women. It had six cells, two dungeons for solitary confinement, and a twelve-foot perimeter wall.

“Rioting,” “adultery,” and “stealing horses in Indian Country” were among the crimes that landed people in the prison in its early years. Staff punished “unruly conduct” or “disobedience” by putting prisoners in the dungeon and giving them only bread and water. Staff were also permitted to whip prisoners twenty times a day for five days. Escapes were common. The prison’s first warden put prisoners to work for his private manufacturing business. In 1890, the state built its own twine-binding factory inside the prison—a forerunner of the statewide prison industries program later called MINNCOR.

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The state eventually expanded the prison, but it was damp and infested with roaches and bed bugs. Between 1912 and 1914, prison officials moved everyone into a new facility two miles south in a town now called Bayport, and they closed the old facility down. In 1920, when the state opened a reformatory for women, the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater became a men’s facility.

The 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in upheaval at the prison. Prisoners staged rebellions, from labor strikes and sit-ins to setting sheets on fire. Small groups of prisoners tried to escape. Unions jockeyed to represent prison staff. One union demanded that the legislature investigate the prison administration. As these events unfolded, people across Minnesota debated the purpose and culture of the prison.

In 1969, Minnesota’s first commissioner of human rights sued the prison administration over the use of tear gas against a group of mostly Black and Native American prisoners. The prison’s warden said the concerns about racism were an attempt to “incite problems” among prisoners. In 1970, a judge decided that the Department of Human Rights did not have the power to monitor discrimination within the prison.

Between the 1980s and 2000s, the number of people incarcerated in Minnesota steadily rose. In 1997, the Minnesota legislature required the Department of Corrections to put more than one prisoner in each cell “to the greatest extent possible.” By 2010, more than five times as many Minnesotans were locked up as in 1981.

American Correctional Association (ACA) reviews in 2018 and 2019 found that the Stillwater prison — now called Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater — was too crowded to meet national standards. The ACA found the prison did not have adequate space in shared cells, common space in cell blocks, or plumbing for the number of people incarcerated there.

By January 1, 2020, Minnesota’s first prison was one of eleven adult prisons across the state. With a population of 1,529, it held roughly a sixth of the state’s prisoners.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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