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Carloads of Convicts Roll into Oklahoma

January 31, 2001

Historian's Notes

The story of Oklahoma’s penitentiary is fascinating! I never knew that for years Oklahoma’s prisoners were basically leased to Kansas.


All of this material came from my personal research in the state archives of the Kansas State Historical Society. If you’re interested in learning more, check out my thesis from Emporia State University:

Kite, S. L. Kansas, convicts and labor: Systems of labor utilized at the Kansas State Penitentiary, 1861-1909. Emporia State University, 1996.

Almanac Transcript

Hello, I'm Steven Kite welcoming you to the Oklahoma Audio Almanac where we turn the pages of history to bring you the stories of our state's past.

This week carloads of convicts roll into Oklahoma.

During its years as a territory, Oklahoma’s judicial and penal systems were crude at best. Lacking the jail space to properly house its convicts, Oklahoma Territory shipped all penitentiary bound perpetrators to Lansing, Kansas, the site of the Kansas State Prison. For years, Oklahoma inmates housed in the Kansas facility came back to the territory with tales of abusive treatment and harsh working conditions foisted upon the Oklahoma convicts. Kansas it seemed was using the Oklahoma inmates to perform the most dangerous and least desired prison duties.

The Kansas State Prison at Lansing featured an on site coal mine providing fuel for the prison itself as well as other governmental institutions across the state. Prison officials, according to ex-convict reports, favored the use of out-of-state inmates for the deadly work in the mines. Each year mine accidents injured, crippled or killed numerous Oklahoma inmates, while Kansas convicts were allowed to work in the relative safety of other prison shops and industries.

In 1907 the Oklahoma legislature appointed Kate Barnard as the new state’s first Commissioner of Charity and Corrections. In addition to the welfare of the states women and children, taking care of the inmate problem at the “sore of Kansas,” as the town of Lansing was known, was Barnard's chief concern. Posing as a common tourist Barnard for the price of a quarter was escorted through the main prison buildings, while there she managed to speak with Oklahoma convicts and confirm the stories of abuse and over work. Because of Barnard’s actions, news of the Oklahoma inmate conditions at Kansas were soon spread across the Sooner state. Funds were appropriated for a prison to be located near McAlester, Oklahoma and construction was soon under way.

It was on this date in 1909 that the first train load of Oklahoma convicts pulled out of Lansing, Kansas. Heading for the home state and a penitentiary free of coal mines. Deprived of its main source of labor, the mine at the Kansas State Penitentiary was forced to close its doors forever.

Prison bound freedom this week on the Almanac.

I'm Steven Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is production of the OSU Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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