Monday, April 28, 2008

The History of Lyon County Kentucky - Part 7

Soon legislative committees were making official inspections of the Frankfort prison. Their grim reports shocked the conscience of lawmakers and voters. Slowly the tide of opinion began to turn in favor of Blackburn and his plan for prison reform.

The governor’s legislative package included many correctional principles implemented years later such as strict classification of offenders and “halfway” houses for prisoners moving back into a free society. Most important to the immediate need, however, was the appointment of a three-man commission to select a site and receive plans for a “branch penitentiary”.

A pivotal member of the commission was an old friend of Blackburn’s and a colorful hero of the Confederacy – General H. B. Lyon of Eddyville. After visiting several sites, the commission narrowed the choice to Bowling Green and the general’s hometown.

The people of Lyon County were excited at the prospect of the prison being located in their county seat. The railroads were overtaking the river market upon which Eddyville had depended through the years as its main economic asset. The community saw the prison as a much needed industry and pledged money and land for its construction.

The Eddyville location, high on a hill overlooking the Cumberland River, was ideal, according to the architects hired to advise the commission on site selection. The tract adjoined the Paducah-to-Louisville railway and was within 2,000 yards of the river, 116 feet above its low watermark.

The area was a healthy region, conducive to agricultural endeavors and blessed with a bountiful store of natural resources – coal, iron, brick clay and building stone. Perhaps most important to the minds of law-abiding citizens, Eddyville was remote from the populations centers of the state. It was considered good planning to have convicted felons as far removed from the mainstream of society as possible.

In 1844 [sic – 1884], after Blackburn had left office, the legislature appropriated funds for the branch penitentiary at Eddyville. Construction began in October of that year when the first inmates arrived to make up the bulk of the labor force.

The inmates were assisted by 30 Italian stonemasons, who hewed the large stones from limestone slabs dug from a quarry within 300 yards of the construction site and transported over a small gauge railway built for the purpose.

The state had purchased 87 acres for $4,000, of which $1,400 was donated by the citizens of Eddyville. The prison itself was to cover only 10.5 acres with the remaining land to be used for farming and garden plots for prisoners.

Slowly the massive limestone structure began to rise upon the hilltop, dominating the horizon and posing like a brooding monster over the peaceful river valley. It took on the appearance of a large medieval fortress.

The “Castle on the Cumberland” was completed officially in 1886, at a cost of $275,000, a pittance compared to today’s prison costs.

[Picture on this page is a full view of the “river side/front” of the prison. The lake is shown in the foreground of the picture, and the water tower with the letters, KSP, stands behind and above the prison. A small pleasure boat is seen on the lake in the foreground of the picture. The picture seems to have been taken from the vantage point of a boat on the lake.]

Before the mortar had hardly dried and inmates began filling up on its cavernous confines, a large sign was placed above the front entrance: “Abandon Hope, All Ye That Enter Here”.

Early living conditions for the convicts were far from the humane designs of Governor Blackburn. An 1897 legislative investigation produced alarming revelations. Twelve-year-old boys were being incarcerated at the prison. Corporal punishment, including lashings at the post, was inflicted regularly. Sometimes permanent injury such as broken bones was sustained.

The mortality rate was shocking. In 1896, there were 35 deaths from natural causes. A year later, 27 prisoners died. The main cause of their demise was sewer gas, which languished in the damp and squalid basements of the cell houses where long-term prisoners were confined without proper ventilation or exercise.

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