The hauntings and history of the Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa. (KMTV) — In 1885, Pottawattamie County built a new county jail.

It wasn’t just any jail; it was a squirrel cage jail — or a rotary jail. One of just 18 ever made.

The concept was to limit jailor and inmate interaction and to provide security with limited jailors.

The Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs was the largest of its kind.

“It’s supposed to house 60,” Historical Society of Pottawattamie County Museum Director Kat Slaughter said. “So, two men per cell, and that is going to be 14 years in age and up.”

While it stands as a museum today, it officially closed in 1969.

“It had to stop because of safety issues. It was condemned about 22 times in its 84 years of use as the county jail,” Slaughter said.

The jail would rotate manually and would often get caught. Meaning only one cell would be open through the swing door, and sometimes it would get caught to where no inmate was able to exit their cell.

When it would get stuck inmates could go days without food and water. Some inmates even lost limbs when the jail rotated.

That risk still may have been better than solitary confinement. Slaughter took 3 News Now anchor Zach Williamson to it and showed him what it was like.

“It’s less than 2×2 and about six feet tall,” Slaughter said.

She says the longest recorded time an inmate stayed there was ten days.

Also on record — five deaths at the facility. Slaughter thinks there could be more.

“Five deaths in 84 years in this death trap? It just seemed a little low, so we wouldn’t be surprised if more came out.”

She says they may be among the spirits that still reside at the jail.

“We’ve had different reports throughout the years of footsteps, dark shadow figures, doors slamming and opening, things moving around, voices when you’re the only one in the building, whistling.”

In her six years, what of those reports has she experienced?

“Oh, basically all of the things I mentioned I’ve personally experienced.”

Many professional paranormal investigators have made the trip to the jail and sung the same tune.

“Every single time we are there something will happen,” Rob Gray said.

Gray and Sarah Stream are a . They have been to the jail countless times.

The first night they stayed there it was pure silence when they heard boots approaching the cell they were camping out in.

“And it walks right up to the front of our cell, standing there, and you know somebody is there looking at you,” Gray said. “She just quietly looks at me in the dark and is like, ‘did you hear that?’ I’m like, ‘you literally have to be deaf not to hear this craziness that just happened in front of us.’ Full chills, hair on end.”

The area they’ve spent the most time trying to debunk — the top floor. They say there is a certain spot that makes their equipment go haywire every time.

“There’s definitely something different going on (on the fourth floor) in the apartment that seems to be separate from everything else,” Stream said.

“One female got her hair pulled and she looked around at me thinking I was goofing with her, and I was like five feet away from her,” Gray said.

Hauntings and history making it truly one of a kind.

“I tell people you’re literally standing in the only one in the entire planet,” Gray said. “You’re not going to find another one of this magnitude.”

The Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail is one of just three of the original 18 rotary jails still standing today.

Slaughter says former inmates often return to tell stories and participate in tours.

The jail hosts public investigations and is also hosting flashlight tours leading up to Halloween.

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