A Census Guide To

Oklahoma's Poor Farms, Orphanages, Sanitariums and Institutions
 

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12/17/2003

 

The beginning of Oklahoma's first state prison in 1908 took place around circumstances which could be characterized as interestingly dramatic because of the rapid turnover of the events at the time of statehood. During the territorial days, Oklahoma was sending its prisoners to Kansas Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas. One cannot start studying the history of corrections in Oklahoma without looking at the dynamic and charismatic role of Miss Kate Barnard. As commissioner of Charities and Corrections, Barnard had received numerous complaints about the mistreatment of Oklahoma inmates in Kansas Penitentiary. She arrived unannounced in August 1908 and took a tour of the institution along with other visitors. After the tour, she identified herself and requested that she be allowed to conduct a thorough inspection. During her inspection, Barnard found systematic torture of inmates by the use of "crib" and the "water hose." On her return to Oklahoma, she wrote a report about the conditions in Kansas Penitentiary and recommended that all Oklahoma prisoners be transferred back to Oklahoma. Naturally, Kansas state rejected Barnard's report in defense of its position, but overwhelming evidence came in from prisoners and ex-prisoners in support of Barnard's report. As a result, the first contingent of 50 inmates was put in a train and moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, on October 14, 1908. This happened within two months of Miss Barnard's visit to Kansas. Rarely, had a state administration moved so quickly as did Oklahoma state in the matter of movement of prisoners, more so when Oklahoma had no prison of its own in October 1908. Credit for this timely and courageous action goes to Governor Charles N. Haskell and Commissioner Kate Barnard.

According to the contractual agreement, Oklahoma was paying 35 cents per prisoner daily to Kansas, and the annual cost per capita for the care of prisoners came to $127.75. Kansas Penitentiary further raised its revenue by furnishing these prisoners' labor to contractors who ran coal mines, furniture factory, and binder twine factory. While both state administrations were concerned with the economics of prisoners' maintenance, Kate Barnard had a different dream. She wanted to wean these offenders away from their criminal habits and restore them to society as useful citizens. Following her visionary approach, she recommended to the Governor and the legislators of Oklahoma that all inmates be transferred immediately from Lansing to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth until Oklahoma could build its own penitentiary.

What kind of prison should Oklahoma have? Kate raised this question many times. She was against dark dungeons and crushing the spirit of a convict. She remarked that, "Many prisons are so bad that society sins worse in committing a man to one of them, than the man who has sinned against society." What was Kate's conception of a good prison? "The best prison is the one which turns out the largest percentage of prisoners who never return to a life of crime," according to Miss Barnard.

She added that the mission of the prison should be character building of the inmates and not seeking revenge. She wanted Oklahoma State Penitentiary to be designed after the federal penitentiary, in Leavenworth, Kansas, using humane standards. At Kansas State Penitentiary, Lansing prisoners were employed to work at mines, which tended to deaden and brutalize these men whom Kate wanted to reclaim. So she banned their laboring at the mines.

By early January 1909, when there were 155 inmates at McAlester, there were still over 562 including juveniles under 16 years of age at Lansing, and the contract with Lansing was expiring by the end of January 1909. Governor Haskell reminded the legislature to appropriate adequate funds for the permanent construction of the penitentiary. Kate Barnard suggested that the legislature should request congress to accommodate Oklahoma state prisoners in Federal Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas, until Oklahoma State Penitentiary was ready to receive more prisoners.

Within a year after the beginning of the construction on the penitentiary, reformers began to lobby for a state reformatory. Kate Barnard, commissioner of Charities and Corrections, led the fight and articulated the need for such an institution in her annual reports to the Governor and legislature. The arguments advanced for a reformatory were as follows:

  1. Most other states had built a reformatory based on Elmira, New York, model for youth between the ages of 14 and 25.

  2. Barnard projected that when the state population reached two million, the prison population would exceed the penitentiary capacity of 1280, thus necessitating another institution.

  3. The proposed reformatory was needed to train youthful offenders in moral standards and job skills necessary to survive in the general society.

  4. Since individuals required varying lengths of time to train and adjust in the community, Kate Barnard recommended indeterminate sentences and parole.

The legislature rejected the bill. After this initial rejection, the proposed reformatory became a political issue. Sam Flourney, the first warden of the reformatory, in his letter dated December 12, 1909, complained to Governor Haskell that southwestern Oklahoma was being discriminated against for not getting a reformatory and requested an appropriation of $100,000. According to Conley:

The battle quickly lost its philosophical reform impulse and reverted to a conflict between the eastern and western parts of the state. Representative G. L. Wilson of Mangum, Oklahoma, a supporter of the reformatory, submitted a second bill without the indeterminate sentence requirement, but the opposition amended the title to read "Branch Penitentiary" instead of reformatory. If another institution was to be built, the penitentiary people wanted to control it by having it designated as an extension of the McAlester prison. Wilson threatened to oppose the construction of the penitentiary at McAlester, "until we have had our just desserts in the western part of the state" and until the title changed back to "reformatory." Because Wilson served as chairman of the House Committee on Public Buildings which authorized the location and construction of state public buildings, his threat carried much weight. The opposition softened and the amended bill passed with an initial appropriation of $500,000 to begin construction. The issue was not the location of the penitentiary or the difference between it and the reformatory. The real issue was that the politicians from the eastern part of the state and the penitentiary administration viewed the reformatory bill as a direct threat to their construction plans. If they had to share funds with the reformatory, they feared that they would have to limit the scope of their institution.

So, the Oklahoma State Reformatory was established by an act of legislature in March 1909. The temporary quarters (built south of the 'wildcat' mountain) were completed, and the first 60 inmates were received from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on April 22,1910. This number was supplemented by 50 more inmates in May 1 91 0; 100 Black prisoners were transferred from McAlester in July 1910 for public roadwork in Washita County. Two hundred more prisoners were transferred on March 18, 1911, of which 100 were assigned to public roadwork in Caddo County. Clyde A. Reed was appointed warden on September 12, 1910. Construction of the main facility began in 1911 and was completed in 1914. The temporary quarters were destroyed by fire that same year. Even though the reformatory was completed during the tenure of Governor Lee Cruce (1911-1915), Governor Cruce was lukewarm to the reformatory idea. His resistance was motivated by budgetary considerations fearing that the state treasury could not withstand the $850,000 appropriation for the penitentiary and also the initial $500,000 for the reformatory. This was not all. The newly appointed Warden Clyde A. Reed demanded additional funds for a school and vocational training equipment. To be fair to Governor Cruce, it must be made clear that he attempted reforms of moral and social conditions in Oklahoma. He commuted death sentences of 19 prisoners to life imprisonment. He was sympathetic to the reform ideal, but he did not want the reform to be too expensive.

Money was, however, found for both institutions and by the end of 1914, most of the permanent structure had been completed, and 150 inmates were transferred from McAlester to the reformatory, at Granite. Having completed the reformatory, Kate Barnard, an unforgettable reformer, removed herself from the active scene. Several factors obliged her retirement: failing health, political opposition, and some disturbing events, at two institutions, such as a deadly prison break in which seven people were killed, and the death of an inmate at the state mental hospital at Supply from injuries alleged to have been inflicted by three former attendants.

To evaluate briefly, Kate Barnard, during her short seven years (1907-14) as commissioner, founded, built, and put in operation both the penitentiary and the reformatory. She had lofty, but realistic goals for the institutions, gave personal attention to the inmates herself, and expected the staff to do the same. While the Governor and the legislators wanted the institutions to be not only self-sufficient, but also revenue earners for the state, Kate wanted them to be good citizens on release from the prison. Because of the opportunity of new constructions and starting new programs, the staff exhibited a sense of pride in their institutions. The prison inmates also gave a good account of themselves and cooperated with their keepers at least in the initial years.