Crawfordsville's Rotary Jail and Mental Illness

Credit: Nicholas K. Johnson

Indiana prisoners with mental illness often remained among the prison population during the nineteenth century, especially in places like county jails. One facility, the Montgomery County Rotary Jail in Crawfordsville, provides us with an example of nineteenth-century Indiana incarceration facilities. The Rotary Jail consists of a building that housed the county sheriff and his family with the jail itself attached to the home’s rear. The jail was designed as a sort of “reverse panopticon” where the cells rotated on a turntable, thus ensuring that the guard only needed to observe one prisoner at a time. Now a museum, the Rotary Jail offers us an example of the large silences and gaps in the history of mass incarceration and mental illness. While we know that prisoners with mental illnesses were housed at the Rotary Jail and at other institutions in Indiana’s incarceration system, detailed sources and interpretation remain lacking or limited to gimmicky portrayals that depend on the asylum stereotype. One prisoner with a developmental disability, John Coffee, whose grisly and botched execution has often been at the center of “haunted history” associated with the Rotary Jail Museum. How can we work with the historic silences surrounding mental illness and incarceration?