It was an ingenious idea of unprecedented efficiency– an entire jail, full of prisoners, all controlled by just one jailer. Instead of going to the cells the jailer brought the prisoners to him, simply by turning a crank.It was also escape proof. Until a specific pie-shaped cell of the inner rotating cage was aligned to the lone opening in the outer cage there was no way out.
Though the idea was captivating in theory, the reality of turning a 90,000 pound cage with a hand crank was difficult to reliably achieve with the technology of 1885. Only eighteen were ever built, the jail in Council Bluffs the largest and the only one with a three story cage.
Even beyond the scarcity of the rotary jails in general perhaps the most significant feature of the Pottawattamie County “Squirrel Cage” jail is that it lasted so long. Though initially praised as innovative, public option rapidly shifted to feelings that the jails were cruel and inhumane. The oft jammed mechanism could isolate a prisoner for days with no food, water or medical attention. Arms, legs, or even heads could be crushed if caught unawares between the turning bars. Providing heat and lighting to a cell that rotated wasn’t even realistic.
Most rotary jails were condemned within a few years, but not the one in Council Bluffs. It served as the Pottawattamie County jail for nearly seventy years. The building survives today as a museum of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County.
Is the "Squirrel Cage" jail merely creepy... or is there something more going on?
"Squirrel Cage" Rotary Cell
226 Pearl Street
Council Bluffs, Iowa
The museum is currently closed for the season and will reopen next spring. To arrange group tours please phone or e-mail.
Historical Society of Pottawattamie County members: Free
Seniors (over 60) and AAA members: $6.00
Ages 6 - 12: $5.00
Age 5 and under: Free