skip to content
Primary navigation

1853 - 1889

DOC History

A territorial prison was established at Stillwater funded through a $20,000 Congressional appropriation. By the mid-1850s the prison included a yard enclosed by a 14-foot high stone wall with gates of heavy iron, a cell house with 16 cells, two shop buildings, other small structures and a stable. The warden's residence, now a historical building, stands high on the bluff overlooking what was the prison complex.


The State Prison at Stillwater in 1912


Minnesota became a state and the territorial prison became the first state prison. The new warden tightened security, ordering muskets and bayonets to be used by guards; reduced prison accessibility by outsiders; and refused to accept county prisoners.

The first good-time law was passed as an incentive for good behavior in prison. Prisoners earned three days off their sentence for every month of good conduct.

Minnesota 's second correctional institution, the House of Refuge for juveniles, was established in St. Paul. Located on the site of a large farm west of the State Capitol where Concordia College now stands, it had two buildings for boys and one for girls. It was one of the first reform schools without bars and security walls. Soon after being established, the House of Refuge was renamed the Minnesota State Reform School.

A law was enacted to permit prisoners to earn income from their labor.


Articles made by offenders at the State Reform School in 1875


The notorious Younger Brothers of the Jesse James gang entered the State Prison at Stillwater.

Orphan asylums were established to prevent delinquency, caring for approximately 130 dependent and neglected children.

At the State Prison, typical prison food consisted of boiled meat, potatoes, vegetable and two slices of bread on a tin dish with a cup of water. Coffee, tea and porridge were also served. Milk was a delicacy reserved for the sick. Fruit, butter, salt and pepper were unthought-of luxuries.

The legislature established the State Board of Corrections and Charities. Its purpose was to investigate various state institutions, provide advice on improving their operations, and prevent irregularities in their management. Each institution was required to have a Board of Managers.

The legislature appointed a commission to recommend a location for a second state prison "to be situated at or upon some of the stone quarries of our state." St. Cloud was chosen.

Making the second prison a reformatory was decided by a joint committee of the State Prison. The Minnesota State Reformatory for Men was conceived as an institution for correcting criminal tendencies before they became chronic. It was felt that a younger prisoner could not be reformed by locking him up with the hardened criminals at the State Prison at Stillwater.


An inmate in solitary confinement at the State Reformatory in 1917

back to top