The Squirrel Cage Jail

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. While most of the rotary jails had only one level of cells, the Squirrel Cage Jail had three stacked levels of holding cells. The combined effect of the tall cell structure made it look like the sort of cage in which one might hold a small animal, hence its popular nickname. The jail was in active use until 1969, when it finally closed and was taken over by the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County as a museum. 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.