The first state prison opened in 1838 near Jackson, and started with a temporary wooden prison. In 1839 the first 35 prisoners were received. It started with three log cabins, and walls built with huge wide logs, almost like a fur traders post, and 7 of the original 35 prisoners escaped over the walls. Then two years after it opened, on a foggy night June 1, 1840, 10 of the 85 inmates dug their way out of the cabins and escaped. The fugitives terrorized the community, robbing banks and becoming known as the Jackson Robber Gang. It took two years to finally capture eight of them
In 1861 the west end of the prison complex was completed to house prisoners of the civil war, and it was quickly overcrowded. John Morris, the warden from 1870 to 1875, was prosecuted for his brutality to prisoners. The assistant warden, 33 inmates, firefighters, doctors and seemingly anyone else involved in prison life testified at his trial. Morris had a wonderful demeanor to the outside world, but inside the prison, he became a monster. Morris once had a prisoner whipped 63 times. Another, who had suffered an injury to an arm during the Civil War was tied against a wall with wet leather bands at the wrists and ankles. By the time the bands had dried and the man was untied, his arm was so severely injured it had to be amputated.
Beginning in the 1880’s under Warden H. F. Hatch a greater emphasis was placed on education and rehabilitation of prisoners.Female prisoners were at the Michigan State Prison with the men up until 1882. Sarah Havilland poisoned her own children because she couldn’t feed them. Yet inside the prison she became the much beloved caregiver to the warden’s children, who at the time lived onsite. By 1882, it was the largest walled prison in the world and a quarter of the size of Jackson in terms of population.
On September 1, 1912, a riot that is described by many as the worst riot in the prison’s history began. The first sign of trouble was when inmates starting throwing plates against the walls of the dining halls. Many fights followed after this and the riot lasted for six days. On the sixth day, the 90 or so inmates that were leading the riot were beaten and the riot eventually came to an end, but not until after the governor had called in the National Guard.
In 1928, construction of a new prison north of Jackson began and the inmates were moved to the new facility. the old prison was closed in 1934 and at the time there were 3,840 prisoners which was too many for the facility to handle, despite the many additional cell blocks that were added through the years.
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