Iowa's Infamous Squirrel Cage Jail

Oct 17, 2017

In 1885, residents of Council Bluffs wanted the city to become a safer community, but did not want to pay more taxes to do so. As a result of this, the Squirrel Cage Jail was implemented, composed of 90,000 pounds of metal standing three stories tall. The design of the jail was a cost-efficient rotary design, where the prisoners were housed in pie-shaped cells that were rotated with a crank and centered around one opening, similar to the design of a "lazy Susan." This design meant that only one jailor was necessary to man each of the three structures, each housing over 90 prisoners. Kat Slaughter, manager of the Squirrel Cage Jail and RailsWest Museum describes the rationality behind the jail, and some of the problems that arose with the design.

"It was described as cheaper, and the safest jail you could have at that point in time," Slaughter mentions. "So you have ten cells on each floor that can be moved by the use of a hand crank, and so that's 90,000 pounds when it's empty being moved by a hand crank... when it was perfectly balanced, it was perfect. But we're on a water table, meaning our building would shift a little bit, meaning the gears would get out of balance, making it harder and harder to rotate. It could get very dangerous. Arms and legs were broken when it rotated if you weren't aware it was going to rotate. You can see why the fire marshal came in 1960 and told us we could no longer function like that."

On this Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe speaks with Kat Slaughter about the history behind Iowa's historic and infamous Squirrel Cage Jail, and its second life as a museum.