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Alton Penitentiary in Alton, IL

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This was the 1st penitentiary in the state of Illinois, and the 3rd in the country. It was built in 1833. It held 24 cells at first, but it got over crowded in no time, and the need for more cells was eminent. By the time it closed in 1860, it had 296 cells. Like all old prisons, the story seems to repeat itself. It was unsanitary, cold, and the conditions were inhumane. The needs of the prisoners were not met, mostly due to greedy wardens or care takers, who simply used the money meant for the prisoners for themselves. A new prison was built near Jolene, and once completed in 1859, all the prisoners were moved there, at which time Alton Penitentiary was abandoned. Due to needed space for the confederate prisoners of the Civil War that started on April of 1861, Alton Penitentiary opened once again in 1862 until 1865. The conditions were no better, in fact, much worse. It got terribly over crowded. Three or more men slept in each tier, bunks being built up 7 or more tiers high. The water in the well on the grounds got contaminated. New water was hauled from the river, and stored in a trench near where the toilet containers were. There were several prison breaks. Due to the horrific conditions, diseases flourished. In 1863, Smallpox broke out. It reached epidemic levels, and even started to spread to the city. The death toll rose, reaching up to 10 deaths on some days. There was no hospital in Alton at the time. The prison hospital flooded many times, due to the poor placement of the prison. Some of the bodies were buried on prison grounds. Some of the dead were stored in a shed in the prison yard until it filled up, and then they were taken to a nearby island on the Mississippi called, "The Sunflower Island," where a smallpox hospital was opened, but was abandoned in 1865 when the island flooded. The state had bought some land in North Alton to be used as a cemetery for the dead prisoners. On the way to the cemetery, along the Hop Hollow Rd, the guards sometimes simply threw the bodies in the woods and stopped to drink and play cards to kill time. In 1864, the nuns from Daughters of Charity demanded a new hospital building. Today, there isn't but a small sandy strip left of the Sunflower Island, as the new Locks and Dam was built using the sand of the island, and due to erosion and floods, the bodies and graves washed away. Alton Penitentiary closed down after the war. Walls around the prison yard were torn down in the 1870's. Most of the stone was crushed and used for construction projects. The prison yard was turned into a public park. In 1970, the last section left of the prison was moved, and made into a monument, after it stood on the Upper level of the present parking lot for over 100 years. The area where the prison was located, is now a parking lot. When the ruins of the prison were still there, people could hear disembodied voices, doors slamming, and cries of men. In the parking lot area, one can still see apparitions of the prisoners, sometimes being mistaken for homeless people. In 1909, a monument was placed in honor of the dead.

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