23 April 2021

Salt Lake's Rotary Jail

Salt Lake County Jail from UDSH.
Colorized by My Heritage
When I first read about Salt Lake’s Rotary Jail, I though “Wait, what? The Rotary Club had a jail?” Nope, not at all....

Located in what is now the downtown SLC Post Office parking lot, the Salt Lake County Jail was built in 1888 at 268 West 200 South.

This was the second jail to be built in SLC and replaced the single-story dilapidated adobe structure built in 1857 which was prone to jailbreaks. The County wanted the best technology that would reduce prison breaks and the patented Rotary Jail system seemed to be the ideal solution.

The rotary plan promised maximum security and maximum efficiency. Author Douglas Miller described the Rotary Jail system as a looking like “a two-tiered lazy Susan with each platform divided into 10 pie shaped cells.” 

The entire cellblock could be rotated and would align to a single door. The jail could also be set to slowly revolve continuously for extra security. The entire system could be manned by a single guard.

The front of the building housed the County Sheriff and his family while the back of the building contained the Rotary Jail as well as standard jail cells.

The Rotary Jail seemed to work great for several years and true to its promise very few prisoners escaped. One successful escape was in 1907 when Charles Riis sawed through the bars of his cell and an outer window.

Concerns about prisoner safety are eventually what shut down the rotary jail. Accidents to prisoner’s limbs were commonplace in many of the Rotary Jails across the country and in the event of a fire it would be nearly impossible for a guard to release the prisoners in a timely manner.

A new jail was built in 1909 and the Rotary Jail was shut down. It was demolished in 1927.

Source: The Salt Lake County Rotary Jail by Douglas K Miller, UHQ V75 N4.

Side view showing residence in front and jail in back Des News Mar 1 1902

Rotary cell with inmates (notorious) Peter Mortensen and J.J. Riley. Des News Mar 1 1902

Two-story rotary jail cell in Crawfordsville, Indiana;
similar in design to Salt Lake's jail. HAER image

SLC 1898 Sanborn map clipping

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