Montana Justice

Power, Punishment, and the Penitentiary

Keith Edgerton

  • $25.00s paperback (9780295984438) Add to Cart
  • hardcover not available
  • Published: 2004
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History
  • Bibliographic information: 200 pp., 20 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Since the days of the wild West, Montanans have struggled to be "tough on crime" with limited resources. During Montana's early territorial years, "criminal justice" was almost nonexistent: a few towns had inadequate and chronically overcrowded jails; occasional prisoners were sent east to the federal penitentiary in Detroit; and vigilantes summarily dealt with others suspected of crimes. In 1871, the federal government funded a penitentiary in Deer Lodge that was turned over to Montana when it achieved statehood in 1889. In this absorbing book, Keith Edgerton provides a social history of the Montana Penitentiary, with a primary focus on its early, formative years.

After statehood, Montana leased its penitentiary to contractors, who utilized cheap inmate labor to turn a profit for themselves and for the state. Warden Frank Conley became a regional political boss and amassed a personal fortune, using inmates for road construction and a variety of public and private projects. Eventually, charges of corruption led to his ouster by Governor Joseph M. Dixon and sparked a trial and heated controversy that resulted in Dixon's political downfall.

After 1921 the prison system came under full control of the state government. Although there were changes at the penitentiary during the rest of the twentieth century - and two full-scale riots in the 1950s - there was also a depressing repetition of corruption, neglect, and underfunding.
Keith Edgerton is associate professor of history at Montana State University-Billings.

"Perhaps no historical environment is better for revealing the force with which race, class, and gender shape American life than a prison. The evidence here demonstrates beyond contradiction that finances drive public policy, especially when they should not. Montana Justice will be a welcome addition to western history, but also to the many disciplines that concern themselves with the human condition in modern America."
-Anne M. Butler, Utah State University
1. The Majesty of the Law: Vigilatism and Western Prisons
2. Penitentiary on a Shoestring
3. "The Accursed Thing": The Territorial Penitentiary
4. No Warden More Efficient: Frank Conley
5. Getting Tough on Crime: 1921 to the Present

"This book is a welcome addition to the western history library, and it will certainly appeal to scholars and students of criminal justice, history and law and society in the American West."
-Western Historical Quarterly

"An outstanding work that uses myriad primary sources and delves into new realms."
-Journal of the West

"Keith Edgerton has produced not only an interesting history of the Montana penitentiary at Deer Lodge, but also an evaluation of the attitudes that state legislators, governors, and residents of Montana have developed in regard to crime and the prison. . . .A well-researched, well-written, and interesting book."
-Pacific Northwest Quarterly