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Utah Territorial Prison, Sugar House, 1855-1951

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This page was last updated on October 9, 2013.

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Overview

Utah Territorial Penitentiary (Utah State Prison) was located along the south side of today's 2100 South, at 1400 East.

The jog in the alignment of 2100 South, east of 1300 East was made in the original alignment to allow the road to pass along the penitentiary's north perimeter.

The former prison site is now occupied by Sugar House Park.

The site for the prison was selected in 1853, and in 1854 an adobe brick prison was constructed. Improvements and new construction followed over the years, but by the 1940's the prison had outlived its usefulness. On March 12, 1951, the inmates were moved to a new prison at the Point of the Mountain. The old prison later became Sugar House Park. (See A. P. Rockwood, "A Concise History of Utah Penitentiary, Its Inmates and Officers, From the year 1855 to 1878"; MS in the Bancroft Library, photostat in Utah State Historical Society)

Timeline

"In early December 1855 the fifth session of the Utah Territorial Legislature convened in the south wing of the State House in Fillmore. ... For forty-two days the legislators met to frame laws and pass resolutions for the territory, including a resolution to complete the penitentiary..."

Originally constructed by the federal government in 1854, the territorial prison was expanded with new buildings constructed in 1888 and 1891 to house Mormon polygamists convicted of unlawful cohabitation under the Edmunds Act. The facility served as the Utah State Prison from statehood (1896) until 1948. (See Richard D. Poll, ed., Utah's History (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989), pp. 286-87)

February 1855
The Utah territorial prison began operating in February 1855. (Deseret News, April 21, 1954)

Governor's Message To The Legislative Assembly Of Utah
December 12, 1859
Deseret News, December 14, 1859

The report of the affairs of the penitentiary by the warden exhibits the number of prisoners and contains an estimate of the appropriation necessary for their subsistence the penitentiary system as applied in this territory seems to be peculiarly unfitted for carrying out the intention of its projectors there will probably be only a small number of convicts confined at anyone time and I am acquainted with no kind of labor which in this country would defray the expense of the maintenance of the prisoners and the payment of a suitable guard the continuance of the system under these circumstances subjects the territory to a heavy expense without furnishing corresponding advantage. The building itself is objectionable, in consequence of the original defects in the plan of its structure and from its present dilapidated state, caused by a violent storm in the year eighteen hundred and fifty eight. It originally consisted of two stories - the upper, constructed of adobes, divided into two rooms; the lower, built of sandstone, divided into small cells. The eastern gable end of the building and a large portion of the roof were destroyed by the storm alluded to. As there are no workshops, tools or materials provided for work, the prisoners must necessarily be confined to their cells for want of proper occupation, or be permitted to rove about within the adobe walls which surround the building, passing an indolent and unproductive existence.

I have been informed that the secretary reported the dilapidated condition of the building to the department at Washington, but I have no knowledge of the character of the reply, if any reply were received.

Between 1864 and 1871, due to insufficient funds, the prison did not even employ a night guard. Consequently, many prisoners escaped. Between 1855 and 1878, 47 of the 240 convicts escaped, an additional 12 were killed in escape attempts. (James B. Hill, "History of Utah State Prison, 1850-1952"; Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952, pages 47 and 145.)

The Utah Territorial Penitentiary in Sugar House was expanded in 1877 to accommodate hundreds of non-violent prisoners—polygamists. Beginning in 1877, workers began to expand the territorial prison sprawling south of Twenty-First South street. Cells were added to total over two hundred, augmented by bathrooms, a kitchen, a bakery, a new hospital, and women's quarters, as well as a new home for the warden. A stone wall surrounded an exercise yard and gardens and orchards where prisoners worked. Church leaders George Q. Cannon and Abraham Cannon both served time, and the latter kept a detailed journal, describing a cell approximately twenty by twenty-six feet and twelve feet high, lined with three tiers of bunks, each bunk sleeping two men. (History of Salt Lake County)

At any one time, at least until the late 1870s, and after 1890, various census figures show that there were seldom more than 15-20 inmates held at the prison at any one time. It was in the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s that the federal government began prosecuting hundreds of men who were members of the LDS church for participating in the doctrine of plural marriage. Their sentences varied from five to six months, with the offense being stated as "unlawful cohabitation." The prosecutions came to an end in 1890 after the church renounced the practice. (for additional information, see the Wikipedia articles for plural marriage, and for the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887 that took away any legal standing the the LDS church had with the federal and territorial governments)

In 1886 U.S. Marshal Frank H. Dyer recommended construction of a three-story prison inside the old adobe walls. The new cellblock was completed in 1888. Soon after, sandstone walls replaced the adobe ones, and another cellblock and an administration building were erected on additional acreage. (From Art Work of Utah, 1896)

The following comes from "Life Behind Bars: Mormon Cohabs of the 1880s" by Melvin L. Bashore (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 1, Winter 1979, page 22):

Passage of the Edmunds Act in 1882 launched an all-out crusade against Mormon polygamy. The law provided a $500 fine for those found guilty of polygamy and a prison sentence of up to five years. Nominal polygamists, those convicted of unlawful cohabitation, could be jailed for six months and fined $300. Prosecutions in the courts eventually jailed [p.24] more than thirteen hundred men and a few women in prisons in Arizona, Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho, and Utah.1

The majority of the men were sentenced to terms in the United States Penitentiary at Salt Lake City. The dilapidated adobe prison, on a site later developed as Sugar House Park, was little changed from when it had been first put into operation in 1855. A twenty-foot high adobe wall, four feet thick, enclosed the prison buildings and an acre of yard. Sentries armed with rifles manned catwalks ringing the exterior of the upper wall, and during inclement weather, they peered from turrets placed at opposite corners. On the west, near the heavy iron and wooden gates controlled by the turnkey, were a sentry box and reception room. Outside the walls, near the entrance, were outbuildings such as the kitchen, butcher shop, blacksmith shop, stables, women prisoners' quarters, and warden's office and home.

The facilities were insufficient for the inmate population that would mushroom with the confinement of the Mormons. Until the overcrowding forced the marshal to construct a three-tiered iron cell, the prisoners were housed in wood bunkhouses. At the peak of overpopulation in 1888, officials built three bunkhouses of two-by-sixes laid flat and spiked together for walls, floor, and ceiling. These provided an excellent breeding ground for bedbugs, a common Salt Lake pest in the best of households. Three-tier-high bunks, sleeping two in each, surrounded a small heating stove and an impossibly tiny center lounging area. Partitioned off in one corner was a wooden box and water barrel cut in two, called the "dunnigan," which did duty for the men during the night. A few barred windows and ventilating shafts in the roof relieved the stuffiness.

Other special residences within the yard were a hospital, solitary confinement facility, insane asylum cages, and two solitary "sweat boxes" used for extreme punishment. The other major structures adjoining each other were a bathroom, washhouse, and dining hall. The dining hall was rather breezily constructed, but as only fifteen minutes was allotted for eating, the caretakers did not feel the need for building anything too fancy. Several large tables ranged down the center of the room and a rough deal board nailed to the wall ringed the perimeter of the room. A hundred at a sitting were accommodated in the spartan surroundings.

(See also: Gustive O. Larson, The "Americanization" of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1971), pp. 115-38; and Richard D. Poll, "The Political Reconstruction of Utah Territory," Pacific Historical Review 27 (1958):120. The most reliable count of convictions in Utah for polygamy and unlawful cohabitation is 1,035 in Stewart L Grow, "A Study of the Utah Commission, 1882-1896" (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1954), p. 268.)

In May 1888 the Salt Lake & Eastern Railway received federal Congressional approval to build across the penitentiary grounds as part of its route up Parleys Canyon to Park City. (Marlowe C. Adkins, A History of John W. Young's Utah Railroads, 1884-1894)

Closure

February 1951
The Utah State Prison in Sugar House was closed in February 1951 after a new prison was completed in Bluffdale at Point of the Mountain at the south end of Salt Lake Valley. The original prison in Sugar House was completed in 1857 as the territorial prison. After its closure in 1951, the prison property, consisting of 180 acres, remained in state ownership and various proposals were considered by the state legislature during its 1951 session.until it was passed to Salt Lake City for use as a public park. The original intent was to allow the Sons of Utah Pioneers move its museum collection to the property and establish a pioneer village. About 118 acres would be devoted to the pioneer village, with another 30 acres being used for a new Salt Lake City high school. The remainder, about 30 acres, would be used by the state highway department for a new super highway. (Deseret News, January 9, 1951; March 15, 1951; April 21, 1954)

At the November 6, 1953 meeting of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, in which Mr. and Mrs. Horace A. Sorensen presented the property, buildings, and relics of the SUP Salt Lake City museum to the society, it was stated that Mr. Sorensen also spearheaded the movement to obtain the old Sugar House prison property as a site for the erection of a Mormon Pioneer Village. (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1, January 1954, Historical Notes, page 88)

Several sources refer to today's 2100 South as the Penitentiary Road. That same street was also known as 12th South until all streets were renamed to match the number of blocks they are located south from Temple Square.

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