History of the Rotary Jail

William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh invented the Rotary Jail around 1880-1881. They filed a patent application on April 12, 1881 and were issued United States Patent No. 244,358, on July 12, 1881. The specifications included in the patent paperwork describe the invention:

“The object of our inventions is to produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard... it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of prisoners.”

The jail machinery consisted of a cylindrical cell block of pie-shaped cells around a central core containing all of the plumbing and ventilating systems. Each cell contained a niche which projected into the core and contained a water closet. Such sanitary conveniences were not found in a typical jail at the time. The cells were divided by plate iron partitions and contained iron bunks attached to the walls. This cylindrical cell block did not have any bars. It rotated within a stationary cylinder of prison gratings (bars) which had only one door per level. These doors were enclosed in iron-barred vestibules which were stacked in the same manner as the cells. There was no catwalk or other floor around the second tier of the cell block because the single door was the only entrance. The cell block would be rotated until the correct cell was aligned with the door, and then the prisoner could be put in or taken out. Each cell had a solid portion of plate-iron wall near the bunks which could be rotated so that no cell had access to the door.

The cell block was rotated by a hand-crank, provided on each level outside the iron-barred vestibule. The jailor simply turned a crank which connected to a series of gears below the floor. These gears turned the immense iron cell block assembly, which sat on several roller-bearings. One man could easily crank the cell block and it would rotate smoothly.

Cover sheet for U.S. Patent No. 244,358, issued July 12, 1881 Plan for" a large prison... "a number of separate pavilions arranged around a central building"
Section through rotating cell block and stationary jail building showing central core Drawing of the rotary jail with the rotating cell block highlighted
The core of the rotating cell block contained water closets in each cell and housed the plumbing and ventilating systems A secure iron-barred vestibule allowed the jailer a secure location from which to open the only door to the cells
Plan and section of the hand-crank rotating machinery Details and section of the central core
Letterhead from Haugh, Ketcham, & Co. Stationary
View of the company's office & works at Haughsville [ also called Haughville], Indianapolis  

As the jails aged, mechanical problems seem to have plagued the rotary systems and prisoners could have arms or legs crushed as the cells revolved within the stationary grating. All were condemned in the 1920s-1930s and the cell blocks were welded in place.

Few Rotary Jails were ever built, the estimates ranging from six to eighteen. Three survive today, the Montgomery County Jail at Crawfordsville, Indiana (1882); the Pottawattamie County Jail at Council Bluffs, Iowa (1884-1885); and the Daviess County Jail at Gallatin, Missouri (1888-1889). The former two were built by Haugh, Ketcham, & Co. The Daviess County Jail was manufactured by a competitor, the Pauley Jail Building & Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, apparently a knock-off on Brown & Haugh’s patented design. Only the Indiana and Iowa jails retain their rotary cell blocks, and the Iowa example is no longer operational. The Montgomery County Jail at Crawfordsville, Indiana, was the first rotary jail ever built, and is the only one still operational. All three of these jails are open to the public.