Old Kilby Prison

Kilby Prison

In 1970 the Old Kilby Prison was nearing its demise, but still in operation. It was Alabama’s Alcatraz, built 1922, huge, forbidding, located only 4 miles from downtown on a site that is now the NE corner of old Federal Drive and Coliseum Blvd. Its 20-foot high, 6-foot thick perimeter walls enclosed 27 acres. Its blockhouse held 5 tiers of cells. “Yellow Momma”, Alabama’s well used electric chair, resided there. The Kilby reservation encompassed 2500 acres, and included farm land, shops, barns, truck gardens, a laundry and other facilities. I visited there on several occasions during the 1960s, and when you passed thru its massive sally port you felt as if you had entered a medieval castle. Its 1970 implosion was used in the film The Traveling Executioner.

-Charles Humphries

Below is a very nice piece written by ChasHarold Simmons:


The chief contribution of Governor Kilby and Warden General Feagin was to make it possible for Alabama to modernize its system with an additional prison, Kilby. The new prison became more than a symbol of modernization, however, and it became the basis for reform changes that would occur for decades hence. Feagin designed a massive and thoroughly modern (for then) prison on the Baltimore model and secured the funding for its construction. In 1922, construction was started on Kilby Prison which was named in honor of Governor Kilby.

On January 15, 1923, Governor William W. Brandon of Tuscaloosa began his administration. Roy L. Nolen (replacing Feagin) was the head of the Board of Administration’s Convict Department and in charge of all matters pertaining to the operation of all state prisons and the activities connected with them.

In February, the Legislative Session of 1923 made it unlawful “for any person to lease or let for hire any state convict to any person, firm, or corporation”. Not having sufficient housing or staff to accomodate the leased inmates, the BOACD instead leased the mines and prisons from the mining companies, and as a State mine, kept the convicts in the same prison bed and mine.

The Legislative Session of 1923 also made provisions for executions to be performed by electrocution at the new prison Kilby. The public and festive hangings of the 1800’s had long since disappeared. Instead, the hangings were conducted out of sight of the public on gallows built inside the county jails. This law took this practice from the counties and gave it to the State.

The Kilby Prison complex was completed in 1923 at a cost of $2,250,000, which was worth more than the total value of all the other prison properties combined. From the start, Kilby received compliments from all over the United States, and as far away as Europe, as being the most modern and best conducted prison in the nation.

Located four miles north of the State Capitol on 2,550 acres, Kilby had a comfortable capacity for 900 convicts. A twenty foot high reinforced concrete wall surrounded 27 acres within which the prison’s buildings were located. These buildings were constructed of concrete and steel with a dark red brick veneer.

The main building was five stories high with the first floor having individual cells. The other top four floors had cells constructed that could hold up to five prisoners each. All cells had a private toilet and lavatory, were fireproof, and positioned to receive natural light and adequate ventilation. The temperatures in the upper tiers were equalized by forced ventilation through the roof. For bathing, large shower baths accommodated over 50 convicts at a time with hot and cold water provided. The kitchen and dining room had state of the art equipment which permitted economically well prepared meals three times a day. Medical care was provided by a hundred bed hospital and a dental parlor that was also thoroughly equipped. School rooms and a library were provided for the prisoner’s educational programs. For the administration, ample offices were provided for the accounting department, the bureau of identification that used Bertillion system, spacious waiting rooms, and private offices for the officials. A power plant and laundry was also built.

Also inside the walls was the Kilby Cotton Mill and Kilby Shirt Factory. The 10,000 spindle mill employed 225 convicts in the production of 105,000 yards per week of the highest grade chambray cloth. The Kilby Cotton Mill opened on April 9th and began production on July 1, 1923. The mill was fireproof and used the latest designed machinery and equipment. Two thirds of the chambray produced was used by the Kilby Shirt Factory which employed 350 convicts in the manufacture of 12,000 blue work shirts per month. The remaining one third of the chambray was sold on the open market.

Kilby also had a modern and sanitary 100 cow dairy that used only purebred cows in the production of milk and butter. A large portion of the surrounding land was devoted to pastures for the dairy and beef cattle. About 1,500 acres was devoted to garden and farm crops to grow food for the convicts, the cattle, purebred swine, and to produce a surplus of cotton for the open market.

Two railroads and three highways passed through Kilby’s property. Across a highway [US 231, Wetumpka-Montgomery] in front of the main building, in a beautiful oak grove, 30 homes were built for the officials and employees. Within this community center was also a hotel for the single employees. This prison village also had a “Community House” for the sole use of the employees and their families.

Kilby Prison became the receiving and distribution point for convicts entering or moving among the prisons, a function that Wetumpka Prison had previously performed. The hospital at Kilby was believed to be one of the best equipped hospitals in the South, according to the Physician Inspector, Dr. F. F. Blair. All new prisoners were brought to Kilby. On arrival they were placed in detention cells until they were photographed, Bertillioned, and fingerprinted. They were then given a thorough physical examination and classified for the work most suited to their physical and mental capabilities. Kilby had a well equipped dental laboratory and parlor where new prisoners were given any necessary dental treatment prior to being transferred elsewhere. The dentist made regular monthly visits to all prisons. He had one trained nurse to assist. A Wasserman test was made on each convict. All chronic and acute cases were brought to Kilby from other prisons. Out of 382 operations, there were only five deaths.

Kilby did much more than serve as a mere complement to the other prisons. Kilby made the group of facilities into a correctional system of programs and institutionalized elements of the reform movement. Kilby served as Alabama’s turning point and Alabama’s entry into a new era of corrections. Kilby made it possible to move into an era without the brutal convict lease system, into the road camp era that would last until 1975, past the demise of Kilby.

When Kilby opened in 1923, the state owned and operated Wetumpka, Speigner, #4, and #5 prisons. In early 1923, at Speigner Prison, a modern wood-framed prison building had been constructed to accommodate 600 convicts comfortably. The Aldrich, Banner, Belle Ellen, and Flat Top prisons were privately owned but state leased and employed convicts in mining. The River Falls Prison was also privately owned and manufactured high grade lumber in an up-to-date saw mill and finishing plant.

In 1934 a central ware house was established at Kilby for handling the many supplies used by the prison system. The Hawes-Cooper Law became effective January 19, 1934, which adversely affected the sales of prison produced items. This law created a boycott on prison made goods. Because of this the underwear and shirt factory were closed.

In 1960, a Trusty barracks at Kilby was completed and opened with a normal capacity of 400 convicts.

Kilby had over time become archaic and dilapidated, without proper convict living quarters, industrial areas, hospital facilities, educational and recreational facilities and the foundations and walls were cracking. While built originally on the outskirts of Montgomery, the area was becoming urban and thickly populated. Too many inmates were classified in over restrictive custodies, and more medium facilities were needed. A new cotton mill, abattoir and meat processing plant were also needed. Further new administrative offices, receiving and classification units and hospitals were also needed. The BOC Commissioner, Frank Lee, recommended that Kilby and the surrounding farms and real estate be sold and that new facilities be constructed with the proceeds.

On June 24, 1964, Frank Lee Youth Center was opened to house male offenders 21 or younger with sentences of less than ten years. The center had a capacity of 104 inmates. In 1966, J.F. Ingram was opened adjacent to FLYC. Vocational trades taught were body repair, auto mechanics, brick masonry, upholstery, cabinet making and welding.

In Nov 1969, Holman Prison was completed and occupied. Holman was named after a former warden of Kilby, William C Holman. Kilby’s maximum security unit containing the electric chair (the Yellow Mamma) and death row inmates were moved to Holman.

In early January of 1970, the Mt Meigs Medical and Diagnostic Center [renamed later in honor of Kilby] was opened and by January 21st, all inmates had been removed for the old Kilby Prison. Subsequently, the out of use prison was razed.

-ChasHarold Simmons

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