If you got blind, roaring drunk in Bangor once upon a time, you were apt to end up in the county jail for a month or two. Conditions there were about the same as in the average Maine barn. Unlike a cow, however, you got to wear a suit with stripes. Instead of an airy stall, you might end up in one of those tiny cells below ground called “dungeons,” rooming with a couple of other prisoners “shoulder-to-shoulder.” Reform-minded residents set out to do something about such abhorrent conditions a century ago.
In the fall of 1908, a coalition of reform groups met with the Penobscot County Commissioners to urge jail improvements. A story that appeared in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 18 said the group had asked for the removal of women prisoners from the jail, the segregation of boys from adult prisoners, better sanitary conditions, and, oh yes, new uniforms without stripes.
The jail was so overcrowded and unsanitary that it was dangerous to inmates’ health. “I do not feel that I can sleep comfortably in my own house, nor that the conscience of my Church can be at rest until matters are improved,” said one minister.
Two weeks later, the Bangor Daily Commercial sent a reporter to interview Sheriff Lindley W. Gilman, who said the jail needed to be enlarged.
The cheapest way to do it would be to turn the jailer’s quarters into “25 or 30 new cells.” Then the county would need to build a new house for the jailer on the same lot. Taxpayers, who were a lot stingier back then than they are today, were not too impressed with this solution.
Sheriff Gilman corroborated what had been said at the earlier meeting of the reform group, adding a few details. Sanitary conditions were not the best, he conceded in the story that ran on Nov. 24. In fact, there was no running water in the cells. Presumably, men relieved themselves in buckets or some similar contrivance. Adding “closets” to the cells would be enormously expensive because the cell walls were brick and the floors were solid granite, the sheriff observed. As for hospital facilities — well, at one time three men with typhoid fever were confined to a room “hardly more than 10-by-15 feet in size,” said the sheriff.
Improvements were being made as quickly as possible, said the sheriff. For example, “in the bathroom where a shower was substituted for a tub” and electric lights had been installed in the cells.” Finally, the bars in the cells, which had been black, were now painted white.
A few months later, a story appeared in the Bangor Daily News, adding a few more disgusting details. A new sheriff, T. Herbert White, had been elected.
TERRIBLY CROWDED IN BANGOR JAIL, said the main headline on April 12, 1909. The subhead continued, “114 Prisoners In 45 Cells — Too Many Commitments For Intoxication …” This time the reporter took a tour of the jail.
First he visited the debtors’ cell, which “was a fairly large and comfortable room, but there were eight prisoners in it. They overflowed the bunks and slept, almost shoulder to shoulder, on the floor. In a cell next to it, there were three — one on each of the bunks, one on the floor.” In the cells up and down the corridors, it was the same.
Sheriff White repeated most of the complaints of Sheriff Gilman. Boys (even young men as old as 20) should not be incarcerated with men, and girls should not be placed with women — “and you know what most of the women are sent here for.” Unlike liquor violations, prostitution was a subject newspapers avoided mentioning altogether or else they cloaked it in euphemisms.
“We have no place for the sick, and yet there is no law whereby they can be removed to the hospital,” said the sheriff. He recalled a prisoner with advanced tuberculosis. “There were two things I could do — put him by himself in one of the single cells in the dungeon, right on the damp bricks — no sunlight ever penetrates — or upstairs where he would sleep shoulder to shoulder with at least two other men with every chance of infecting them. … So I put him by himself, and it wasn’t a bit pleasant to hear his coughs [during] nights. It takes no expert medical knowledge to know that his life must have been shortened by the experience.”
White had a simple solution to the crowding. Stop incarcerating drunks for long sentences of 45 or even 60 days. “Of the 249 commitments this year, 156 were for drunkenness,” said the sheriff. “Take away these 156 and conditions would have been normal.” It wasn’t fair, he said. For simple drunkenness, men were locked up until they lost their jobs and their families suffered.
Later that month, a state inspector named E. P. Mayo visited the jail. He agreed conditions were “wrong and the present quarters wholly inadequate for the number of prisoners,” according to the Commercial on April 21. But his only order, based on a new state regulation, was for prisoners to begin eating meals outside their cells on folding tables and chairs set up in the corridors. “It is far more sanitary to have a general eating place for the prisoners as a man is almost certain to drop some of his food in his cell, where it is sometimes the source of vermin,” Mayo said.
Besides, there would be considerable savings to the county. Men would only take what they wanted to eat and less food would be thrown away. “Bread not used at one meal under the system might be served at the next,” he sagely observed.
Conditions could only get better for prisoners as progressive reformers gradually triumphed. On June 3, the Commercial announced that Sheriff White had decided to let prisoners wear regular overalls instead of the “ugly suits of black-and-white horizontal stripes” when they were working on jail grounds. Since the prisoners on work details were trusties, the chance they would escape was much reduced anyway.
A collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns entitled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org