Cañon City has a long and storied history of being a prison town. With seven prisons in the city alone, and more in the surrounding area, Cañon City might as well be the Alcatraz of the Rockies. At one time, the region as a whole was known for having the highest per capita prisoner rate in the world.
Perhaps the most well-known prison in the area is the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility on the western edge of downtown Cañon City. Nicknamed “Old Max,” it was built in 1868 before Colorado was even a state, making it the state’s oldest prison.
At the time, all other towns had a jail with a cell or two that couldn’t keep up with day to day arrests. Rarely was a person held for more than a night or two, no matter the infraction. Simply put, in spite of any legal conviction, there were no facilities within the territory to incarcerate prisoners for an extended period of time.
The Territory of Colorado petitioned the federal government for a prison, with Cañon City, Golden, Denver, and Boulder in the running. As local lore has it, one of Cañon City’s founders and the first sheriff of Fremont County, Anson Rudd, won the bid because of his support for Denver as capital of the state.
When “Old Max” received its first prisoner in 1871, the modest prison had one cell house capable of holding 40 prisoners. Old Max would grow into the prison it is today and would house such famous criminals as Alferd Packer, Colorado’s cannibal, and later, Ted Kaczynski, the “Unibomber.”
With its barbed wire and watchtower visible from Main St., the medium-security prison is not located away from the center of the population, it’s right in the middle of it. The Colorado Museum of Prisons shares a wall with the prison and displays of what life in prison was like over the years. The museum’s gift shop sells t-shirts that advertise “City of Prisons, Cañon City, Colorado” as well as inmate-made belt buckles and other wares that represent life in “Old Max.”