Life in the Pen

Work, Defiance and Desperation

"I have tried to be so brave but when I saw him to day it nearly finished me."
Excerpt of letter from Ellsworth Kelley's mother to the warden after visiting her sick son in the penitentiary. Dec. 7, 1926, page 2: Department of Corrections Records, inmate case file for Ellsworth Kelley #8663. "I have tried to be so brave but when I saw him to day it nearly finished me."
Judges sentenced convicted felons to the Oregon State Penitentiary for a variety of crimes. Punishment and rehabilitation were the main goals. The inmate was to "pay his debt to society" and learn skills and habits necessary to succeed as a law abiding citizen upon release. For most of the approximately 500 inmates at the penitentiary, this strategy was a qualified success. Convicts were required to work at tasks designed to make the penitentiary as self sufficient as possible.

Daily Report of Prisoners and Where Employed
Department of Corrections Records, inmate case file for Tom Murray #8871.

The prison farm, kitchen, and laundry occupied many of them. Also, prison industries such as flax manufacturing employed many of the convicts.

Records of Discipline

But parallel to this world of work and rehabilitation ran a bleak reality of harsh rules, intimidation, brutality, defiance and desperation. It was in this context that Bert "Oregon" Jones, Thomas Murray, James Willos, and Ellsworth Kelley struggled with prison authority and eventually conceived their plan for a breakout. The inmates were disciplined for refusing to work, agitating and tunneling in an attempt to escape. In at least one instance, Willos was put in the "dungeon" at his own request, presumably to escape from a worse fate in the prison yard:

Testimony given by Willos and Kelley at their trial indicated that being confined to the "bull-pen" and dungeon made them fear for their lives. They heard stories of guards randomly shooting into the cells in this area. Prisoners had circulated the story of one inmate confined to the bull pen who had been shot by a guard and then to cover up the incident the guards placed the body outside the prison walls to make it appear as an attempted escape. The testimony apparently was intended to make the jury believe the two men were in such fear for their lives that escape was a rational response to this threat.

After Kelley's capture, he was returned to the penitentiary to await trial, appeal and finally, execution. His mother visited him late in 1926 and witnessed his condition. Her plaintive letter to Warden Lewis displays her mother's love, sense of failure and deep disappointment: