This report was compiled by County Commissioner Tom Ringley in October 2023.
Many thanks are owed to Debra Raver and Judy Armstrong of the Wyoming Room, Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library who provided numerous photos and newspaper articles used throughout this report.
When Sheridan County was formed in May 1888, it had many pressing needs. Two were most critical. The first was a place for the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and staff to conduct county business. The second was a place to house miscreants when they were arrested or sentenced to jail.
It didn’t take long to find a place to do county business. By July 1888, office space for the new county government was secured in a building on the southwest corner of Brundage and Main. Rooms were rented from Smith and Brundage for $60 per month. The frame building was later torn down and replaced by a brick building, the Masonic building, which was later the site of Tucker’s Store and the Hallmark Store. The building was later incorporated into the Wyo Theater.
The jail was another matter. One was needed and soon. The BOCC got right to it and on June 1st, 1888, they advertised for bids for the construction of a county jail. Bids were received, but at the commission meeting of June 15th, 1888, all the bids were found to be unsatisfactory and were rejected. That was because apparently deficiencies were discovered in the plans and specifications. At the same meeting, the BOCC adopted new plans and specifications submitted by W. H. Phillips for a county jail. The county clerk was then ordered to advertise for bids again.
Assuming that a jail would be built sometime soon, the BOCC, on July 11th, approved a contract with E. R. Ellison, agent for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company, to furnish steel jail cells for $3200 and one fireproof safe for $250.
Soon after, on September 5, 1888, the BOCC minutes recorded that George Brundage appeared before the BOCC and signed the contract to construct the jail. But where was the jail to be built?
At the same meeting on September 5, 1888, the BOCC accepted a block of land donated by Kilbourne and Brooks to the County of Sheridan as a site to build a jail. Five years later, in 1893, adjacent land was donated as a site to build a new Sheridan County Courthouse. This was the site of the First Congregational Church which was moved. Combining the two sites allowed the jail and the courthouse, which was completed in 1905, to be very close together. The conditions of both land donations were that the land had to be used for county buildings or the land would revert to the original ownership.
George Brundage made short work of the job. On December 1, 1888, the Sheridan Enterprise, reported that “The jail building will be finished today and turned over to the county.”
So, after approximately ten months from the time it was formed, Sheridan County had a jail to house prisoners. It was located at Burkitt and Whitney on the southwest corner of the lot. This building served as the Sheridan County jail for approximately 24 years. Over time it became seriously antiquated and deficient by the time it was replaced in 1913.
Information about what was used as a jail in the ten months it took to build a jail is sketchy. In a Sheridan Press article on May 10, 1982, Susan Odom shed some light on the matter. “The exact date prisoners began to be jailed in Sheridan County remains a mystery. A territorial marshal deposited prisoners wherever convenient until a judge could take care of a case. Elsa Spear Byron conjectures that a shack that used to stand behind the original city hall (where the Mission Bar is today) may have been used to house prisoners. She also remembers hearing of an old barn-type building that used to stand in the present Colony South area that may have been used as a jail.”
In her article, Odom also wrote about the first prisoner in the new jail. The first was Jim “Slip “Burke. Willard H. Marshall, Sheriff, “…explained in a letter that in the early spring of 1939, Burke, a native of Clearmont and a longtime resident of the county, presented himself as the first county jail prisoner in Sheridan County.”
“Marshall described Burke as a ‘small wiry man in his 70’s’ who claimed he had been driving a four-horse fresno (a wagon of some sort) while working on filling in the courthouse yard. Burke said he and another teamster got drunk and had a fight, so Burke was put in jail to sober up overnight—the first night, according to Burke that a prisoner spent there.”
Occasionally there was some drama at the jail. Probably the most serious occurred in 1909. On November 18, 1909, the Sheridan Daily Enterprise ran the following headline and article:
COUNTY JAIL DELIVERY IS FRUSTRATED BY OFFICERS
“Handcuff King” Proves His Boasted Ability and With Five Other
Prisoners Was Near Liberty, When His Plans For Prospective
Escape Were Detected By Watchful Officials
But for the vigilance of Sheriff Benefiel and Deputy Sheriff and Jailor E. N. Thomas, six prisoners now confined in the county jail would last night have breathed the air of freedom, and A. S. Randolph would have made good his published assertion that “prison cells and jailors could not hold him.”
When the plot for the wholesale jail delivery was discovered, all the plans were complete and the prisoners awaited only a more opportune hour in which to open the doors of their cells, remove a previously loosened brick, enlarge the opening in the wall and step forth into the chilly air.
Owing to the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the cells it is necessary to give the prisoners the freedom of the corridor during the day. In the corridor is a steel box in which are located the levers which lock the cells. The steel box is supposed to be locked with a combination lock, but since a remote period in which the memory of those in charge at the jail runneth not, this combination lock has been out of commission.
When in the corridor therefore, the prisoners had full access to the levers controlling the locks to the cells.
During the day, a nut had been removed from one of the levers and a rubber band substituted. Braces to the heating plant had been removed and bent into peculiar shapes so that they could be used from the inside to easily throw back the lever from which the nut had been removed. The cell doors could then be opened. Two minutes would have sufficed to do the work.
When Deputy Sheriff Thomas locked the prisoners in their cells last evening, he as usual made a careful inspection to see if all was well. Discovering that the nut had been removed from the locking levers, his suspicions were aroused, and he summoned Sheriff Benefiel. The two officers opened the cells and began removing the prisoners to the other wing of the jail.
They then searched the cells and found the two implements improvised from the heating plant, and a small file. One of the prisoners volunteered the information that the file had come into the jail at noon yesterday concealed in a lunch sent by friends from one of the hotels to Randolph.
A further search revealed a loosened brick in the north wall of the jail. All of the surrounding mortar had been removed and a cigar box reclining against the wall concealed all trace of the work. Twenty minutes would have given the prisoners ample time to escape.
That this attempt was frustrated was due to the vigilance of the sheriff and his deputy and not to the fact that the jail is capable of resisting attack either from within or without. There is no denying the fact that the Sheridan County jail is antiquated, and Sheriff Benefiel has cause to feel proud of his record of five years without an escape.
The thwarted jail break gave emphasis to the notion that Sheridan County needed a new jail, but nothing happened for about three years. The idea finally took hold as evidenced by an article in the Sheridan Post on December 10, 1912. It read in part:
The need of a new jail with more cell room and more modern conveniences is very apparent at the present time, for in the little coopy hole which masquerades as the Sheridan County jail there have been at one time during the past week as many as 19 prisoners. As the District court has been in session a number of cases have been tried and a few of the prisoners released but there are still twice as many inmates as can be safely housed, and before court convenes again this number may be doubled.
However, even before this article appeared the BOCC had begun the process to obtain a new jail and sheriff’s residence. They advertised for bids on November 19th, 1912, but when the bids were received they were returned to the bidders unopened because the plans and specification had been changed. New plans and specifications were accepted, and the bidding process resumed. On March 4th, 1913, bids were opened, and the contract was awarded to the Pauley Jail Building of St. Louis, Missouri. The bid, which included cells and all steel work was for $22.992.00. The subcontractor which did most the work was Lyon & Axtell of Golden Colorado and their part of the bid was $14,200.
After an eight-month construction period, the new jail and sheriff’s residence was accepted by the BOCC on December 3, 1913.
The new building was constructed on the site of the first jail located just behind the courthouse which began construction in 1904 and finished in 1905. The building also included a tunnel that connected the building to the courthouse. This provided a safe way to escort inmates from the jail to the court in the courthouse. History does not relate what the county did with its prisoners from the time the first jail was demolished, and the new jail was available. It can only be assumed that the county prisoners were housed in the City of Sheridan jail or maybe some other city or town.
The jail is two stories tall. The front half of the building was used as the county sheriff residence and the back of the building housed jail cells. Originally, the south half of both floors of the jail building was used as the living quarters for the sheriff and his family. With the sheriff living in the same building as the jail, the sheriff was really on call 24 hours a day. Sheriff Pete Frith and his family were the last family to live in the same building as the jail. When the sheriff’s office was moved into the courthouse building in 1975, the sheriff was no longer required to live in the jail building.
There is some historical confusion about when the jail cells were constructed. What are believed to be the original blueprints for the jail show that there were to be jail cells built in the basement and on the first and second floors. It is logical to assume that all the jail cells were built at the time of original building construction. However, an article in The Sheridan Press on May 10, 1982, told a different story. That article stated that:
Until sometime in the 1930’s, the jail cells were in the basement of the jail building; then the basement cells were removed and a total of 22 cells were installed in the first and second floors of the building. The first floor had two cell blocks, one on the east side of the floor, with three two-man cells, used primarily for juvenile prisoners, and the other one on the west side, which housed two two-person cells, used mostly for females. On the second floor, six two-man maximum security cells provided housing for male prisoners.
If this is true, and there is no reason to believe it is not, then the original plans must have been drawn up for cells on all three floors with the idea that the basement cells would be built first with the construction for the cells on the first and second floors to follow later. Perhaps there was a financial constraint in the original construction? It will remain a slight mystery of history.
The second Sheridan County jail built in 1913 was used as a jail, for 69 years until 1982 when a new jail was constructed. Over the course of time, the jail became seriously deficient. In a 1971 grant application submitted by Sheridan County to the State of Wyoming, it was stated: “Over the years, due to lack of funds and the type of treatment received by its inmates, the jail has fallen into a deplorable condition. A condition which if not corrected immediately will cause the facility to become unfit for human habitation.” The cited deficiencies included a leaking roof, crumbling interior plaster and concrete due to water leakage. In addition, the building required new paint. It is not known how much of this repair work was ever actually accomplished.
But it was not the end of the line for the old jail building. It was repurposed several times. In 1983 it was leased to the Sheridan Heritage Center for office space, storage and museum displays. The Heritage Center engaged an architect to draw up plans to convert the building to a museum. Estimated cost was $150,000. This proposal was never adopted. Then, in 1985, the BOCC approved an expenditure of $48,500 to remodel the building for use by the Public Health nurse. The last, and current use of the old jail is for the Juvenile Justice Office which has been in the building since 2002. As repurposing occurred, all the jail cells were removed except for two on the second floor.
In 2023, the 110-year-old building received an exterior historic renovation and there are plans to accomplish a historic renovation of the interior.
The building has served Sheridan County well—and continues to do so.
Sheridan County Law Enforcement Center
Two things were happening in 1981. One, the construction of a new courthouse edition was in progress and the county had allocated all its available funds from the one cent optional sales tax to fund the project. Two, the City of Sheridan was building a city law enforcement center which included a jail. It was a $1.2 million project with construction scheduled for the fall of 1981.
While the construction was ongoing, the BOCC received a written offer from the City of Sheridan to build a Joint Law Enforcement Facility for the benefit of the County Sheriff’s Office. The facility was to be built with optional one cent sales tax money coming to the City of Sheridan. County officials expressed an interest in joining the project and votes to accept the generous offer made by the city. Sheridan Police Chief Roger Krout expressed his support to include the county in the project. He believed the combined jail as well as a combined radio system and the combination of some bookkeeping would result in decreased law enforcement costs. He also stated that to expand the city jail (under construction in the new facility to include the county jail) would require that the current 18-prisioner medium security capacity would have to be increased to a 40-prisioner capacity with a maximum-security area.
The county Sheriff, Bill Johnson, also registered his support of moving his office from the courthouse to the new facility. He noted that the current jail (built in 1913) was outdated and needed to be improved.
The City of Sheridan Mayor, M. Dean Marshall, also registered his support for the combined facility, and pledged financial support for the project from the city’s share of the optional sales tax revenue.
In April 1981, in mid construction stream, the Sheridan City Council approved plans for the addition to the law enforcement facility. Architects E. F. Link and Associates told the council that as designed the addition would include a 32-cell county jail and cost an estimated $1.3 million. The architect also recommended that the council approve plans to build the addition with only 24 of the county jail cells to be completed at that time with the remaining cells being roughed in for future completion. Total cost was estimated at $1.1. The City Council immediately sought bids from new contractors for the addition rather than use the contractor employed for the construction under progress.
In October 1981, the City Law Enforcement Center was opened to the public for viewing. A little over a year later, in December 1982, the Sheridan County Sheriff’s office and jail moved to the new facility and Sheridan officially had a combined City and County Law Enforcement and Detention facility.
The new detention facility was certainly an improvement and was adequate for some time. However, after some years his facility would become inadequate as the demand for incarceration of prisoners increased.
On January 6, 1998, an article appeared in The Sheridan Press which described the problem:
Jail faces long-term overcrowding issues
As jails across the nation have faced issues of overcrowding in the past few years, Sheridan County’s jail has managed to avoid such problems—until now.
Since last summer the Sheridan County jail has slept as many as seven inmates on the floor according to Sheriff Pete Frith.
This past summer and fall the jail has been overcrowded for excessive periods of time when we have not had adequate bed space for the number of inmates, said Frith.
It took a few years, but finally in 2004 it was announced that a new jail expansion was in the cards. But it took a few stumbles to get to that point. The BOCC- Charley Whiton, Steve Cox and Brad Waters-wanted to refurbish the existing jail. They secretly started building the county Road and Bridge shop for use as a temporary holding facility while the existing jail was refurbished.
The Sheridan Press reported on the project, and it came to the attention of local and state officials who determined that the building would not meet codes to house inmates. The BOCC then began to explore other options including housing inmates in temporary modular units or sending them to other regional facilities. However, the BOCC determined those options were not feasible and began exploring the idea of building an addition to the jail.
In the meantime, Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle launched a state-assisted investigation of the previous County Commission in September 2002, after the public raised concerns regarding the use of public funds and property concerning construction of the shop.
After all the false starts and exploration of ideas, a new jail project finally became possible with the passage of a capital facilities tax in August of 2003 which provided $1.5 million in funding. Other sources included $1.75 million from the Wyoming State Land and Investment Board, $600,000 from the Sheridan County general fund and a $400,000 loan from the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development. The general contractor was Ormond Builders Inc., of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The expanded facility would house up to 124 inmates. This was a vast improvement from the capacity of 50 prisoners which was at times far exceeded by the number of inmates.
Finally, a groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion and remodeling of the jail was held in March 2004. The work was done in two phases. The first phase was the construction of the new two-story detention facility. When that was completed, the prisoners were moved in so that Phase two, which was the remodel of the old jail, could begin. The total effort required two years to complete.
The updated facility is still in use as of 2023 and is adequate to need in terms of number of inmates it can accommodate. However, since it was built in 2004 it has been updated frequently for maintenance and safety needs.