Captive crowd marks prison’s 90 years

At the Stillwater prison, it’s all about time. But it meant different things to different people Friday as the state prison marked its 90th anniversary:

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– “As far as I’m concerned, everything’s changed except the shell, and some of it for the best,” said James Wilford, 50, who has been at Stillwater for 25 years, the last 18 for the 1986 murder of a 69-year-old Robbinsdale woman. Daily routines have become stricter, he said in an interview Friday, but education and treatment have turned his life around.

– “I don’t think of it as home, but I’ve accepted it,” said Rickie Kiger, 48, who is nearing the end of a sentence for the first-degree murder and dismemberment of Morna Jean Brennen in 1986. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a tree outside my window, and I can watch it flap back and forth.” Incoming lifers are now younger and tougher, Kiger noted, but prison programs “will keep people from coming back.”

– “It was the best job I ever had in my life,” said Robert A. Erickson, who served 13 years as warden, from 1980 to 1993, longer than most of the hundreds of thousands of inmates since 1914 have spent there. Erickson had been the prison’s education director since 1969, after working as a high school principal in New Richmond, Wis. “I’d much rather be a prison warden than a high school principal,” he said. “In school you’re still keeping people from escaping. But you can’t enforce discipline.”

– In three years as warden, from 1968 to 1971, Jack Young was stabbed five times, given last rites twice and held as a hostage overnight at gunpoint. “Those were rough times,” he said. “You had Vietnam and all the unrest on the college campuses and race riots. It all spilled over into here.”

Of the 15 wardens who have presided over the prison in its 90 years, eight were on hand for Friday’s celebration, including current warden Dan Ferrise. Joan Fabian and Orville Pung, current and former corrections commissioners, respectively, joined them in visiting a cell block and touring a historic display.

Most agreed that despite wear and tear and a capacity population that has recently forced some double occupancy of cells, the prison could last for another 90 years.

“It would cost too much money to tear it down,” said Erickson, noting the 10-inch-thick concrete walls and 11-inch-thick concrete floors. “But if you stay around this place long enough, you’ll see everything rebuilt.”