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History of the Oregon State Penitentiary


Oregon State Penitentiary

The Oregon State Penitentiary is the oldest prison in Oregon and the only maximum security institution currently operated by the Oregon Department of Corrections. The Penitentiary has been sited at three separate locations. Originally, the Penitentiary was called the Oregon Territory Jail and was located in Oregon City, then the capitol of Oregon. The Territory Jail was built in April, 1842. The Jail was later destroyed by fire on August 18, 1846.
Oregon Territory relied on local jails for the housing of prisoners until 1853. Legislature recognized the need for a new prison and authorized the construction of one in 1851. In 1853 a site was finally selected in Portland. An out of business whiskey shop on Front Street was used to temporarily house the inmates.


1880´s View of OSP

The construction of the Territorial Prison was plagued with problems and escaping prisoners. Construction of the prison began in January of 1854. One of the major problems of the Portland site was that two lots of land had been purchased for the prison, but they were on opposite sides of Front Street. The City of Portland refused to close or reroute that portion of Front Street. The Portland site was abandoned in 1866 and all prisoners were moved to the new prison in Salem.
Unlike the old prison, which was constructed primarily of wood, the new Penitentiary was built of brick and resembled a fortress. The Oregon State Penitentiary is still located on the Salem site originally selected.


Gardner Shackle


The first wall around OSP was built
of brick and was about 15 feet high.

Because the perimeter walls were only 15 feet high, the Penitentiary was still plagued with escapes. In September of 1866 Warden J.C. Gardner patented the infamous Gardner Shackle, which was later called the Oregon Boot. The Gardner Shackle consisted of a heavy iron band that locked around one ankle. This kept the inmate off balance and deprived him of agility. The device was used to curtail the flood of escapees. The current Penitentiary is home to a population of inmates that fluctuates between 1900 and 2100. In the last few years the population has rarely been below 2000. The Penitentiary has 22 acres of land space within the perimeter walls. Within the boundaries of this self contained city are four cell blocks, two dormitories, several types of industries, five vocational training shops, a physical plant with ten shops, education dept., library, counselors, infirmary, canteen, dining room, kitchen and two recreation areas.