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Prison once stood where park now is

Published: Friday, July 14 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

SUGAR HOUSE — Up until 54 years ago, Sugar House was a much different community than it is today. Notwithstanding great advances in technology, it was the town's state prison that was the major difference.

From January of 1855 until 1951 — nearly a century — today's Sugarhouse Park was home to the "state pen."

While today the large area southeast of 1300 East and 2100 South comprises the park and Highland High School — with students, joggers, bikers, picnickers and sporting events — a large rock wall and fences used to surround the area to house criminals and "undesirables."

The Utah Territory built its first prison on the site in 1854, just southeast of the city limits. Brigham Young himself chose the prison site, which was six miles from the city center, in October of 1853. This site had been known as "The Big Field Survey."

According to information from the Utah State Historical Society, it was 10 acres at first. About $32,000 was spent on the prison facilities, but none was for land, because the property was government-owned. Plans were made in March of 1853, and the prison opened a year later.

The original prison was just 16 "cozy cells dug into the ground, with iron bars on top."

These first cells resembled large bird cages, and sometimes cloth or canvass would be draped on top of the cell to halt the sun or inclement weather.

A few years later, an adobe wall, 12 feet high and 4 feet thick, was added, and it enclosed a log dining room and meeting hall. The warden had his own house.

Sir Richard Burton described the area in 1860 like this:

"It is a somewhat oriental-looking building, with a large quadrangle behind the house, guarded by a wall with a walk on the summit and pepper-caster sentry boxes at each angle. There are cells, in which the convicts are shut up at night, but one of these had lately been broken by an Indian, who had cut his way through the wall. We found in it besides the guardians, only six persons, of whom two were Utah Indians."

The cells were poorly ventilated and plain undesirable. In fact, women prisoners were originally placed in the warden's house.

By 1863, another $3,000 was appropriated for repairs, which included $1,000 for the warden's yearly salary.

In 1866, the inmates asked the warden for schooling. Some limited education programs soon began.

By 1867, the state Legislature found the prison to be run-down, unsafe and inadequate. It wrote to Congress asking for money to improve it, stressing that Utah was a thoroughfare to the Pacific and subject to "the marauding depredations of dishonest and unprincipled adventurers."

There was a serious discussion then about moving the territorial prison to one of the islands in the Great Salt Lake, where escape would be more difficult and convict labor could keep busy in rock quarries and in the salt industry. This idea was turned down. There's little doubt that the escape of grave robber Jean Baptiste, from his exile on Fremont Island in 1862, was likely a prime example of how the lake made a poor prison — despite 8-foot deep water around that island.

Poor, too, was the Sugar House prison's track record. Between 1855 and 1878, 47 of the 240 prisoners housed there had escaped. That's a 20 percent escape rate. A lack of guards was a major factor. During the 20th century, a road sign along 2100 South was reputed to have stated, "Drive carefully — Prisoners escaping!"

In 1871, the prison was turned over to the U.S. Marshal. Work projects for the inmates were started, and they began receiving some pay for their labors.

More rules came in 1880. For example, inmates were then required to bathe at least every two weeks. They also had their own chapel and were even raising their own livestock and had their own farm.