Atlas Obscura

Carousels of Criminals: The Revolving Jails of the Midwest

A two-tiered rotary cell block (left) and the steel pedestal column supporting the rotating cells (right) at Montgomery County Rotary Jail.

Photos: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER IND,54-CRAVI,18 & 20/Public domain

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In the spring of 1881, architect William H. Brown and iron foundry owner Benjamin F. Haugh, both of Indianapolis, filed a patent for a most ingenious innovation: a jail with revolving cells.

“The object of our invention,” they wrote in their application, “is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard … This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.”

The submitted design consisted of a two-tier cylindrical cell block with a central column that served as both support and plumbing for the individual toilets in the cells. Each tier had eight wedge-shaped cells, but the surrounding structure had only one door. When a guard rotated a hand crank, the cell block spun, sending the prisoners on a disorienting carousel ride past the lone access point.

An image of a rotary jail from the 1881 patent.

Image: Patent US244358 A/Public domain

Brown and Haugh’s invention quickly became a reality. In 1882, the first spinning jail, a two-tiered, 16-cell institution known as Montgomery County Rotary Jail, opened in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Other states in the midwest soon got in on the idea—the three-tiered, rotating Pottawattamie County Jail, nicknamed the “Squirrel Cage Jail,” opened in Iowa in 1885, followed by a single-story spinning jail in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1889. Records vary, but between six and 18 rotary jails were built in the United States, mostly in the midwest.

Unfortunately, Brown and Haugh’s novel, almost whimsical design had its flaws. Chief among them was the fact that a prisoner standing at the front of a cell with his hands resting on the bars had a decent chance of getting an arm crushed when the rotary mechanism was engaged. Natural light was scant, ventilation was poor, and mechanical problems could interfere with the operation of a jail. In the case of a fire, all the prisoners whose cells weren’t aligned with the access door would likely be doomed. 

In light of these problems, many rotary jails had their turntables immobilized during the 1930s. After operating in a modified state for decades, Montgomery County Jail closed for good in 1973. Pottawattamie County Jail sent its prisoners away in 1969, while the Gallatin jail shut up shop in 1975. All three now operate as museums. Montgomery County is the only one that still spins.

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Two of the drawings included in the 1881 patent.

Image: Patent US244358 A/Public domain

The circular room in the cellar, showing the steel support structure for the rotating cells at Montgomery County Rotary Jail.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER IND,54-CRAVI,16/Public domain

The cog ring and pinion mechanism used to rotate cell blocks at Montgomery County Rotary Jail.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER IND,54-CRAVI,19/Public domain

Tales of other odd jails: