The family visit to the Squirrel Cage Jail

Squirrel Cage Jail
The beautiful exterior of the Squirrel Cage Jail (Photo credit: mlaaker)

This past weekend, I ventured with my family to Council Bluffs. That’s right, I paid Iowa a visit. While every Omahan will scoff at the mere mention of “Council-tucky,” the historical downtown area is very nice. My father has long wanted to visit two attractions in CB: the Squirrel Cage Jail and the Union Pacific museum. The museum is closed on Sundays, so we went to the jail instead.

It was spooky. (And by spooky I mean SPOoooOOOOooOOOKY.) The jail was built in 1885, right after the civil war. It is a large brick building. The exterior is nice—It looks like a school or hospital. Don’t let it fool you. The inside is a metal cage. Literally. That’s why it is called the Squirrel Cage jail.

This is where it gets complicated. Luckily for you, I found a wonderful YouTube video by the town’s Historical Society that beautifully explains the concept of this type of structure.

In the 1950s or 60s, the fire marshall finally decided that it was too risky. The cage bars were removed in front of the cells and a fire escape from the second level was added.

Solitary Confinement in Squirrel Cage Jail
Solitary Confinement in Squirrel Cage Jail (Photo credit: akasped)

The design wasn’t the only thing that made my spine tingle. There was a solitary confinement section where the jailer would put especially troublesome inmates. The hallway leading to the “room” was no more than two feet wide. The “room” itself was a metal closet no bigger than a large gym locker, with no place to sit or move around in. I occupied most of the space with my 5’9″ height; my father’s head was close to the top with his height of 6’2″. I would not have liked to stay there very long.

The hygiene situation was not great either. Inmates were not given uniforms. They remained in the clothes they were arrested in. There was only one shower in the entire “cage” area. Showers were infrequent, but they were done with the inmate’s clothes on as a form of laundry. I don’t want to think about all the lice and creepy crawlies that were probably present.

One of the most saddening portions of the jail was the children’s cells. Children and women had separate cells, away from the cage. If a children’s parents were arrested and nobody was able to take care of them, that child was thrown in jail as well. This was way before foster care. I can’t image what those children went through.

Some of the intake registers have been duplicated and are on display. In the beginning of the jail’s operation, many of the arrests were for intoxication. These offenders were usually given a sentence of 10 days. My, how times have changed!

Typical cell in Squirrel Cage Jail
Typical cell in Squirrel Cage Jail (Photo credit: akasped)

If you have a free afternoon, $7 for admission and a healthy respect for spooky things, a visit to the Squirrel Cage Jail is necessary.

The Pottawattamie county Historical Society’s website is here:

Many people believe ghosts can be found on the property. In fact, the curator told us that there are two ghost cats who wander around.  I didn’t see any ghosts, but that doesn’t mean much… One of the many paranormal investigative sites can be found here:–Squirrel-Cage-Jail.html


2 thoughts on “The family visit to the Squirrel Cage Jail

  1. kylieoneill February 6, 2013 / 8:31 AM

    I love this blog! I live in Council Bluffs and this was always on of my favorite field trips to go on when I was younger! Glad you enjoyed it!

    • asb13521 February 6, 2013 / 9:23 AM

      They took you on field trips there?! I guess that would give the troublemakers something to r quiet about 🙂

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