Dakota Datebook

Inmate School

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Inmates at the Bismarck prison made the news in December 1914 but not because they were causing trouble. They had decided they needed more education.

The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported, “…prisoners at the State Penitentiary took the initiative in the matter of attempting to secure a school in which they could improve their time of evenings by studying such subjects as spelling, writing, arithmetic and the like… [they asked] Warden Talcott to allow them to hold such a school, [and] the warden took the matter up with the state board of control.” Every board member supported the idea, particularly J. W. Jackson.

The article continues, “Six of the inmates who have been better educated than the average expressed their willingness to act as teachers, and classes were formed, about 60 prisoners enrolling, and an average of 45 or so attending each class night.

“The matter was taken up with the state superintendent’s office, and Superintendent Taylor and his deputy have co-operated (sic) in every way possible. Last week, Mr. Jackson, [Supt. Taylor and his deputy], and W.L. Gross of the commercial department of the high school went out to the penitentiary and visited the classes while at work.
“All were pleased with the spirit of the men in the classes,” the story went on, “and as a result of this visit, Mr. Gross has been secured to supervise the school work done at the penitentiary hereafter. He will be assisted by the inmate teachers. Books have been secured, although by no means enough of them, and the work is on in earnest.

“The classes meet regularly three nights a week for two-hour periods, and into these hours a great deal of work is crowded. One difficulty in carrying on the work as it now is done is the influx of new prisoners, every week, or perhaps more often at this time. These new prisoners, if they enter into the school work, are backward, and the whole class must review for their benefit.”

The article goes on to report, “The school idea is working out very well, and now that Mr. Gross has taken an interest in the work, and is devoting some of his time to it, there should be a notable improvement in methods and in results obtained.

“The inmates seem to be learning things from the start, judging from their papers, and the plan is a good one.”

Indeed, new prisoners were a continuous problem. Two years later, the Tribune reported a steady rise in the number of new inmates, the majority of whom were linked to bootlegging and other prohibition-related crimes. There were 232 prisoners committed in 1914, the year the school was begun, and 212 more new were committed the following year.

In 1916, the prison population reached its highest number to that date – 296, of which all but 33 were white. Prisoners were described as coming from a wide array of religious faiths. In addition to religions commonly expected in North Dakota, there were Dunkards, Mormons, Free Thinkers, Jewish Orthodox and many more. The Tribune reported, “The occupation most commonly represented was that of common laborer…48 of the inmates styled themselves farmers; 12, cooks, and 10, teamster.

“At present, Cass is best represented of all the counties, with 27 prisoners; Grand Forks has 10; Ward, 16; Benson, 14.”

Source: Bismarck Daily Tribune. 24 Dec 1914; 20 Nov 1916.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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