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Colorado State Reformatory Prisoner Records: 1887-1939


The Colorado State Reformatory at Buena Vista, Chaffee County, Colorado, was established on April 19, 1889, by an act of the Colorado General Assembly. The reformatory was located on 480 acres of initial land in a mountainous area located one mile south of Buena Vista. One-hundred seven youthful prisoners of the "trusty" class were taken from the penitentiary at Canon City to the reformatory to clear the land, build fences, stockades, and temporary buildings. The wing of one of the cell houses was completed in 1896 and 104 cells were then available.

The purpose of the reformatory was to provide special programs for youthful male offenders who could be returned to free society when reformation was accomplished. These persons were confined, employed at useful work, corrected and instructed for the primary purpose of reformation and rehabilitation to the end that they could become law-abiding members of society. These prisoners were male persons who had started a criminal career, were usually 16 to 25 years of age, and were convicted of crimes other than murder or voluntary manslaughter.

The plan of the reformatory was to put each prisoner on his own merits, to give him a chance by good conduct and his own efforts to shorten his stay; to give proper schooling to those who needed it; to give trades to those who had none, and by all available means to advance the material, mental and moral interests of each prisoner.

Prisoners in the Reformatory were classed in three grades: First, being the highest; Second, or intermediate; and the Third, or lowest. On admission, each prisoner entered the second grade. A prisoner was admitted to the first grade when he had accumulated 1000 marks. A prisoner normally earned five credit marks each day. A prisoner could also lose credit marks for committing the following offenses:

  • Attempt to escape.
  • Altering clothing.
  • Bed not properly made.
  • Carelessness about work, clothing or person.
  • Clothing not in proper order.
  • Communicating to other prisoners by writing, signs, or otherwise,
  • only as authorized.
  • Crookedness.
  • Destroying or injuring property.
  • Dilatory.
  • Dirty room or furnishings.
  • Disobedience of orders.
  • Disorderly room.
  • Disturbance.
  • Eating before signal.
  • Face, hands or person not clean.
  • Fighting.
  • Hair not combed.
  • Ignoring clothing, tools or property.
  • Idleness.
  • Insolence.
  • Inattention.
  • Immoral conversations or acts of any nature.
  • Laziness.
  • Laughing or fooling.
  • Loud talking.
  • Lying.
  • Malicious mischief.
  • Neglect.
  • Not at door for count.
  • Not promptly out of door when brake is drawn.
  • Not promptly in door when brake is drawn.
  • Out of place.
  • Out of step in line from carelessness.
  • Profanity.
  • Quarreling.
  • Refusal to obey.
  • Shirking.
  • Slovenliness in dress.
  • Spitting on floor.
  • Staring at visitors.
  • Stealing.
  • Talking in chapel.
  • Talking in corridor.
  • Talking in dining room, except when necessary.
  • Talking in line.
  • Talking in school.
  • Talking from room to room.
  • Talking while at work, except by permission from officer in charge.
  • Vulgarity.
  • Waste fullness.

At the time the reformatory was established harsh punitory methods such as dungeons and bread and water treatment were in common use until the turn of the century. Records show that the ball and chain method was used by the reformatory on captured escapees in the early days but was also abandoned by the turn of the century. Paddling as a mode of punishment, prevailed for many years at the institution, but was replaced by whipping in later years.

There were separate uniforms for each grade. Prisoners in the first grade were permitted to write a letter once each week; those in the second grade once every two weeks; those in the third grade not at all.

All letters to and from prisoners were carefully read by the warden, or his duly authorized agent, and anything objectionable would not be received or sent out.

Sunday and all holidays were given over to orchestra, plays, and to athletics which consisted of baseball, basketball, and boxing. Also on Sunday, chapel worship service attendance varied from 75 to 85 percent of the total inmate population.

The food was as good as any served in any institution. A sample inmate menu picked at random follows, also a holiday dinner, Week Day, June 2, 1931: Breakfast - boiled rice with raisins, sugar and milk, bread and coffee; Noon - boiled potatoes with meat and gravy, green onions, bread and milk; Supper - baked macaroni (Spanish) with bacon, hot rolls and coffee. Easter Sunday, April 5, 1931: Breakfast - boiled eggs, fried potatoes, gravy hot biscuits and butter, coffee; Dinner - boiled beef, with egg noodles, boiled potatoes, gravy, apple pie, bread and coffee.

The institution consisted of many buildings, some of which were as follows: Administration Building, Steam Plant, Cell house with dining room, Officers' Quarters, Chicken House, Wash House, Lambing Barn, Horse Barn, Calf Barn, Creamery, Slaughter House, Brooder House, Rabbitry, Garage, Cellar in rear of Warden's Dwelling, Oil Houses, Frame Bunk House, Vegetable Cellar, Storehouse, Chapel, School, Library, Dormitories with kitchens, shower baths, and toilets, Bakery, Tailor Shop, Print Shop, Shoe Shop, Blacksmith Shop, Stable, Dairy, Dairy Bunk House, and Hog Barn. Most of these improvements were made using reformatory inmates.

The largest industry and greatest source of employment for the inmates was cultivating the institution's 1513 acres of land. Other common areas of employment were the inmate's kitchen, state roads, and officers' quarters. The prisoners constructed several hundreds miles of roads. Some of the prisoners were also employed on nearby farms and ranches with the money earned going to their families.

School was conducted five days each week for inmates which the warden selected and felt would profit by the opportunity. All inmates were encouraged to learn a trade.

The causes that led to crimes committed by the prisoners were considered to be:

  1. 1. Lack of efficient parental care and oversight.
  2. 2. Unhappy social conditions, resulting in disgrace, want and sometimes expulsion from home.
  3. 3. Ignorance of law and its gravity.
  4. 4. Moral obtuseness.
  5. 5. Desire to live without labor.
  6. 6. Discontent with the present order of things in the social and financial world.
  7. 7. Lack of skill in labor, making a livelihood hard to earn.
  8. 8. Ignorance.
  9. 9. Idleness.

The most common offenses for which the inmates were committed during the period 1929 - 1931 were the following:

  • Grand Larceny, 24%
  • Burglary, 22%
  • Forgery, 10%
  • Robbery, 7%
  • Larceny, 6%
  • Confidence Game, 5%
  • Parole Violation, 4%
  • Burglary and Larceny, 4%
  • Rape, 4%
  • Possession of Still, 2%

Common occupations of inmates committed were:

  • Farmer, 27%
  • Laborer, 21%
  • Mechanic, 8%
  • Truck Driver, 7%
  • Clerk, 3%
  • Student, 2%
  • Baker, 2%

During any given year usually about 260 inmates were admitted, about 260 were discharged, and the average daily population was about 190. The inmate ages varied from 15 to 29 with two-thirds of the inmates being 17 to 20 years old. Other miscellaneous statistics for the period 1929 - 1931 are:

  • Over 90 % were serving the first time.
  • 83% were single.
  • 96% were white.
  • 58% were Protestant by religion.
  • 31 % were Catholic by religion.
  • 38% had a 7th grade education or less.
  • 23% had an 8th grade education.
  • 13% had a 9th grade education..
  • 95% could read and write.
  • 26% were from Denver.
  • 8% were from Weld Co.
  • 6% were from Pueblo Co.
  • 42% used liquor.
  • 57% used tobacco.
  • 8% had syphilis
  • 30% were born in Colorado. Other common places of birth were Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico.

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Updated: June 25, 2013