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Archives Find of the Month: 1907 Jail Conditions

In March 1907, Seattle’s Unitarian Club investigated the conditions at the city jail and sent a letter to the City Council outlining their findings. While the visitors approved of the building’s cleanliness and the prisoners’ food, they did emphatically state that “the male prisoners working on the chain gang…should not be compelled to sleep on the cement floors and without blankets.” The letter continued, “It seems to us that it is far from humanitarian to compel these men, many of whom are not especially bad characters, to work for the municipality, and then give them no place to sleep, other than a damp cement floor.”

The Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds concurred with the club’s opinion and recommended that cots be provided to the men. However, this suggestion was apparently not followed, at least not right away. A clerk file from November 1907 – eight months after the committee’s recommendation – contains a letter from Charles James, a representative of the International Prison Commission from New York, who once again found the prisoners sleeping on the floor.

In his letter, James noted that it was “the first instance in which I have found the above described condition, altho [sic]…I have visited jails and kindred institutions in all parts of the country.” He continued, “[H]umanity, nay common decency, commands that such degrading conditions should be ameliorated…at once.”

It is possible that improvements were already in the works when James wrote his letter. Ordinance 17219, passed shortly before his visit, authorized the purchase of “necessary furniture” for the jail, although it does not specify what that furniture was to be. Meanwhile, an agreement in another clerk file outlines what the prisoners were to be fed: steak, potatoes, bread, and coffee for breakfast; roast meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables (carrots beans, peas, or corn), bread, and coffee for supper; and a repeat of either breakfast or supper for dinner. The city paid fifteen cents for each meal.

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