Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail – Council Bluffs, Iowa - Atlas Obscura

Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail

The world's only three-story rotary jail is now a museum to a bizarre trend in prison design. 


Located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Pottawattamie Jailhouse, better known as the “Squirrel Cage Jail” is one of only three remaining “rotary jails,” all of which stand as examples of a brief obsession with keeping criminals in rotating cells. 

Built in 1885, the jail was constructed to minimize the interaction of jailer and convict by twirling the cells around. The basic idea behind the design was that the cells were all located on a central carousel that would, at the turning of a hand-crank, spin so that only one inmate’s holding area could be accessed at a time, via the single entryway. While most of the rotary jails built around this time had only one level of cells, the Council Bluffs jail was created with three stacked levels of holding cells. The combined effect of the tall cell structure made it look like the sort of cage one might hold a small animal in, hence its popular nickname.

By the 1960s, the massive metal turntable was not faring so well and would frequently become stuck. The jail was in active use until 1969 when it finally closed its rotating doors to further criminals. After its closure, the jail was taken over by the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County and it was designated as a museum site.

Today visitors to the historic mechanical jail can still come and inspect the once whirling hoosegow. Unfortunately the cage no longer turns, but the site is a fascinating look at one of the wilder innovations in modern incarceration.

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