Life in the Pen

In the old territorial days, felonies committed in the Tanana Valley were federal crimes and those convicted were sent outside to McNeil’s Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington state to serve out their sentences. The following newsy report of life in the “pen” is from one of those Alaska convicts who fulfilled his sentence and returned to Fairbanks to resume his life:

The Alaska Citizen- January 8, 1917


“It’s a penitentiary pure and simple, and I wouldn’t like to go back there. For no man likes to realize that he is shut off from the rest of the world by cement walls and iron bars. But if a man wanted to go to a penitentiary I couldn’t imagine a better place than McNeil’s Island. The penitentiary officials are courteous in their treatment of all of the prisoners if the prisoners show any tendency whatever to do the right thing, and they work the men only enough to give them exercise. There is no hardship whatever.”

The forgoing, in effect, was the statement of Al Sutton, the well-known Fairbanksan, who returned to Fairbanks last night after an eight months’ sojourn on the Outside, most of which time was spent within the confines of the United States penitentiary at McNeil’s Island. Mr. Sutton came in over the trail in charge of the live stock shipment of United States Marshal Erwin, whom he met in Seattle, and who persuaded him to take charge of the outfit. He was sent up from Fairbanks about a year ago after pleading guilty to a statutory offense, under sentence of a year and a day, but, given the usual time off for good behavior, he secured his parole and immediately started north. At the end of this month the time of his sentence will have expired and he will be an entirely free man again.

Sutton brings word of all of the Faribanksans now incarcerated at McNeil’s. Billy Clark is in the barber shop. Billy Reagan is still in the tailor shop, after having made two ineffectual efforts to secure a parole. Dan Callahan is doing waterfront grading work on the waterfront of the island, and George Smith and Dave Carmack are working in the quarries. A strict watch is perpetually kept on the two last named men, according to Mr. Sutton.

Sutton himself was working in the hospital. He was given full run of the place as a “trusty” after he had been there for a time. He was compelled to go to the hospital immediately after he arrived at the institution, on account of sickness, and while convalescing made himself generally useful. He thinks that it was for this reason the he was assigned to hospital duty.

The work of the larger part of the prisoners consists of quarrying. There is a big mountain on the island and this is being removed every year, little by little, and carried down to the waterfront on cars. It is in these quarries that Smith and Carmack are engaged in working, while Dan Callahan is in charge of the unloading of the cars on the beach.

Sutton says that the larger part of the prisoners at McNeil’s are young men. “And talking about society,” he continued, “there’s where you find more bankers and post office clerks than you ever thought existed.”

The week at McNeil’s Island consists of five working days, one holiday and Sunday. Saturday is the holiday, and on that day the inmates of the penitentiary do anything they please within the bounds of the rules which have been laid down for the day. Sunday is the day of religious worship, although on that day, also, the men are treated to a picture show.

Note: Dan Callahan, who was mentioned in the report, was a city councilman when he was caught in a police sting operation for having sex with an underage girl. He later won an appeal and after he was released from prison, he returned to Fairbanks and was elected Representative to the Sixth Territorial Legislature. This lowlife History Nugget has been proudly brought to you by Fairbanks Men’s Igloo No. 4 and Women’s Igloo No. 8 of the Pioneers of Alaska.

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