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Prisons and Prisoners in Kansas

Prisoners working in an onion field at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, 1920sSince frontier days, Kansans have built prisons to confine lawbreakers. Efforts to build a penitentiary began during the territorial period. Authorized by the Kansas constitution in 1859, land for the prison was finally purchased in 1861. Serious construction began in 1866 using prison labor. The first section was opened in 1870. The site of the prison was originally called Petersburgh but was often referred to as "Penitentiary." The name was changed to Lansing in 1875. It is the state's oldest and largest detention facility for male prisoners. Executions were performed at the prison until 1965. It was renamed Lansing Correctional Facility in 1990. Some of the well known prisoners incarcerated in Lansing were the Perry Smith, Richard Hickock, the Reverend Tom Bird, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.

In the 1870s people began to realize the need for separate facilities to house juvenile offenders. A reform school for boys under 16 years of age opened in 1881. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union founded a girl's reformatory in Beloit in 1888. It was taken over by the state the following year. Incarceration continued there until 1983.

Coal mining was one of the more significant prison industries. Beginning in the 1880s inmates mined enough coal to meet the needs of the prison and other state institutions. In March 1901 convicts working in the coalmines mutinied. Two prisoners were killed and the ringleaders were captured.

In 1891 Congress authorized funding for three federal prisons. Leavenworth was selected as one of these sites and construction began in 1898. From 1903 until 2005 Leavenworth was the largest maximum security federal prison in the nation. In 2005 it became a medium security prison. Robert Stroud, who later became known as the "Bird Man of Alcatraz," "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Al Capone were a few of the more well known prisoners incarcerated at Leavenworth.

In 1917 the state prison for women was established at Lansing. The women felons were eventually transferred to the Topeka Correctional Facility and Lansing today continues to house only male felons.

The state also maintains correctional facilities in El Dorado, Ellsworth, Hutchinson, Larned, Norton, Wichita, and Winfield.

Entry: Prisons and Prisoners in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2001

Date Modified: April 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.