Work, Defiance, and Desperation: Life in the Pen

Excerpt of a letter from Ellsworth Kelley's mother to the warden after a visit to her sick son in the penitentiary


Judges sentenced convicted felons to the Oregon State Penitentiary for a variety of crimes. Punishment and rehabilitation served as the main goals. The inmate was to "pay his debt to society" and at the same time 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. The convicts were required to work at a number of tasks designed to make the penitentiary as self sufficient as possible. The prison farm, kitchen, and laundry occupied many of them. Also, prison industries such as flax manufacturing employed many of the convicts.

Record 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 the experience of being confined to the "bull-pen" and dungeon had made them fear for their lives. They had been told 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 had placed the body outside the prison walls to make it appear that it was an attempted escape. The testimony apparently was intended to make the jury believe that the two men were in such fear for their lives that their 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 (page 3) to Warden Lewis displays her mother's love, sense of failure, and deep disappointment.

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