Roy Best

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Collection
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Collection

Wardens of the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) have exercised historically strong influence over how the prison has been run as well as how the public has viewed it.[1] A primary task of the warden throughout the early twentieth century was writing the biennial report to be sent to the governor.  This report emphasized the prison budget, explaining how funds had been used for in the two previous years and proposing a budget for the following two years. Wardens’ reports informed the governor and state legislature about what the prison needed, and determined what kind of budget the prison would be allocated. The projects that the warden outlined as completed or in process during the preceding two years stressed what the Colorado State Penitentiary’s chief officer believed were impressive accomplishments. Proposed projects, in turn, illustrated what the various wardens of the twentieth century hoped to accomplish, what they deemed important for the development of the penitentiary.

Warden Roy Best was the most notorious, and in many ways most effective as a historical actor of Colorado State Penitentiary’s wardens.  He held the position from August 12, 1932 until May of 1952.[2] Throughout his tenure, Best was known for his preference of corporal punishment. The “Old Gray Mare” was a disciplinary tool by which inmates were bent over a sawhorse, tied up, and then flogged with a leather strap.[3] This punishment was reserved for major violations, usually escape or attempted escape. Best used the “Old Gray Mare” as a method of public shame and pain, a deterrent to other offenders from committing similar offenses. Inmates seemed to understand his program and to accept the floggings as deserved. One offender who attempted to escape in 1951 said of the attempted escape and subsequent flogging, “we gambled and lost,” in a manner described as matter-of-factly.[4]  Even if prisoners submitted to Best’s punishments as fair, however, not everyone outside the prison concurred with his corporal harshness. Public outcry met reports of Best’s floggings. Governor Dan Thornton investigated and personally called for Best to be removed from office for this brutality.[5] In 1952, Best was charged with excessive physical punishment and violation of prisoners’ rights.[6] He was acquitted of these charges, but later found guilty of mixing personal financial affairs with the management of the prison. For this lesser offense Best received a two-year suspension, but three days before being reinstated died of a heart attack.


Relationships with inmates

Best provided the penitentiary and Cañon City with statewide—even national— notoriety, even if his administration was punitive and fiscally self-serving.  Not only was his term histrionic, but it presented contradictory impulses. While Best gave and authorized harsh physical punishments and demanded discipline among offenders, he also apparently cared deeply for some prisoners and fought for an effective rehabilitation system. One example of Best’s apparently contradictory compassion was his close relationship with Joe Arridy, the falsely convicted and intellectually disabled man on death row. Best gave Arridy toys and spent time with the man who seemingly could not even comprehend that he was to be executed.[7] The warden repeatedly petitioned the governor for a stay of execution or a pardon for Arridy, but his humanitarian appeals were dismissed. Best is reported to have wept during the execution.[8] His kindness and fervor for seeking justice in this particular case show his softer side in marked contrast his severity in other cases. His feeling for Arridy might instead be interpreted as showing his love of justice and determination to keep the penitentiary effective. In Best’s thinking, the guilty must not go unpunished, nor should the innocent or incapable be punished.

Best’s relationship with a second inmate further demonstrates his kindness. James Melton shot and killed his sister when he was only eleven. He was sentenced to twelve years to life and sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary. Instead of being assigned to a cell among the general population, however, Melton was moved into the spare bedroom of the warden’s home. Best stated, “if this boy is to come out of here as a decent citizen, he must have the same advantages as other boys.”[9] Best gave Melton chores and hired a tutor to try to give him a life that was as similar as possible to what he would have experienced in normal circumstances. Best recognized that Melton had committed a terrible crime, and did not petition for his pardon. Nor did he attempt to make the boy forget that he was truly a prisoner, but he did what he could to help the him. Sixth months after Best took Melton in, the warden succeeded in petitioning to have his sentence commuted and sent him to Father Flannigan’s Boys’ Town, an orphanage in Nebraska. Melton eventually ran away and was sent back to the Colorado State Penitentiary for violating his parole, unfortunately for him after Best died.[10] The often-harsh warden had thought Melton deserved a second chance. He obviously believed in the justice system and the possibility of rehabilitation. The conventional prison system did not, as it turned out, work well for Melton, but Best’s recognition of the youthful offender’s age and malleability was evidence that he saw his prison as effective for the other offenders.

Best’s sense of managing and extirpating criminality extended even to an intuition of innocence.  In one particularly compelling instance, he brought an adult convicted of child murder into his own family circle.  Pearl O’Loughin was sentenced to CSP for slaying her stepdaughter in 1930. Upon her arrival at prison, Best took her into his home to make her the nanny of his children and the housekeeper. O’Loughin worked for the Best family in their home on prison grounds the warden finally won her parole after advocating for her for years. As it turned out, he was right to trust her because she was later exonerated.[11]


Best’s idea of rehabilitation

Best did not solely seek punishment. He also worked for effective rehabilitation methods and prioritized this in his warden’s reports. In his first report, in 1932, Best asked for funds for the enhancement of old labor facilities and for new workshops and industrial plants.[12]  He made these requests in order to train inmates in skills that would benefit them upon reentry to society, so that they would be able to “be better fitted to cope with the problems of the outside world when they are released.”[13] Best explained that new prison facilities would eventually be cost-effective and would save money for the state but, more importantly, that they would provide inmates with useful skills that would ease the eventual transition from prison to the public society. His prioritization of the usefulness of work for inmates was exhibited in his request for the continuation of funding for the ranches and gardens. Best disclosed that the income of the ranches and gardens was lower than their cost to taxpayers, but asked for their continuation as these activities provided work for many offenders.[14] The ranches and gardens kept inmates occupied and allowed them to learn farming skills that could help them earn a living once they completed their sentences. Prominent penologist of the early eighteenth-century H.R. Cooley had also argued that farm labor was a means of rehabilitation, so Best’s program was compatible with contemporary thought on best rehabilitative practices.[15]

In 1932, Best recognized a glaring deficiency in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Offenders were provided with free medical care from in-house doctors, but lacked dental care. Any required dental work was paid for by offenders, who often could not afford it. Best asked the governor and state legislature to provide funds for the salary of a dentist and dental equipment. He believed the installation of a permanent, salaried dentist would improve morale in the prison, and was determined to acquire one despite the cost to the state.[16] By 1934, a fully equipped dental shop was installed in the hospital of the penitentiary.[17] Best’s work toward appointment of a dentist was not solely for altruistic reasons. Improved health of offenders would improve their morale, hopefully leading to less reason to riot or escape. Best had come to office shortly following the 1929 riot, and was still working to repair the damaged facilities and reputation of the Colorado State Penitentiary.  He would do anything and everything he could to avoid a catastrophe of that level again.


Separating women

Another of Roy Best’s early ventures was the construction of new quarters for women. These quarters were built outside of the walls of the penitentiary.[18] His support of women’s move outside of the prison walls shows his vision of the female prisoners. Although some were convicted of violent crimes, Best himself did not perceive the female offenders as significant threats to society or serious escape risks. A short wall and fence were eventually put in place, altogether coming to fourteen feet high, but compared to the neighboring wall confining male prisoners, this low and thin barrier seems insubstantial, an illustration of the societal expectations of women during this time, even of women deemed criminals.

Best’s purpose in moving the female prisoners included a plan to transfer the more dangerous male inmates from the general prison population into the old female quarters. Once he acquired funds to build new quarters for women outside the walls of the penitentiary, he then moved the more volatile and hardened offenders.[19] He explained this would protect the general population at the penitentiary from the violence of more dangerous inmates. Best claimed that first-time offenders were highly susceptible to the influence of those around them, and by separating the “hardened criminals, repeaters and moral degenerates,” others would be protected from degeneration.[20] Best’s primary goal in the desired segregation was not an increased punishment through solitary confinement but the defense of the hard-on-his-luck offender who would likely be rehabilitated in the proper setting. These less aggressive offenders would likely be returned to society, and would function better if they were not greatly influenced by tougher criminals.


Best’s allocation of funds

Best made several budgetary requests in 1932 that aligned well with his tough public persona. He asked for the appropriation of funds for several new guards, watch towers, and the extension of the boundary wall. Best’s authoritarianism was expressed in his request for funds for a public address system with loud speakers in every cell house.[21] This would allow him to address the entire prison population together with order and regularity. One telling budgetary request was for the fireproofing of all buildings. In 1932 Best had investigated the cost of fireproofing all of the buildings at the penitentiary, and determined that fireproofing would be less expensive than the damage to state property that a potential fire could create. His report does not discuss the expense in terms of lives lost, which would likely be great in such a confined space, but only discusses the potential loss of property. This reasoning shows the paradoxical callousness for which Best was famous.

But Roy Best was not the ultimate master of the Colorado State Penitentiary, whatever some may have believed. He could only do what the state allowed. Most requests in his warden’s reports were framed in terms of their past and potential income for the prison or the state, suggesting how the governor and state legislature evaluated prisons and their activities. Best had to keep the prison profitable in order to maintain his position—or at least he had to convince the governor and state legislature that it was profitable through his biennial warden’s reports. He concludes his first warden’s report by stating, “The appropriations which I am requesting are far less in amount than those requested two years ago,” indicating that he felt a need to compare himself to earlier wardens in terms of spending. [22] In this comparison, Best hoped to paint himself as a more cost-effective warden. In the same section, he states he has “omitted from the budget many items that should have been included. The appropriations requested are only those [he deems] absolutely essential.”[23] This rhetoric was another attempt on Best’s part to seem frugal on the prison’s behalf and conscious of the state’s other financial requirements. He clearly recognized that the state had many other priorities, so he needed to frame his requests as essential and beneficial to the state and general Colorado population. Although he did not have ultimate control of the prison and its activities, Best worked carefully and diligently to influence those who had greater control to favor his policies and practices.


Reimagining Best

Unfortunately, Best’s reports after 1934 are difficult to acquire. Neither the Royal Gorge Museum nor the Colorado Museum of Prisons holds copies of relevant reports dated after 1934, nor are such reports available online. More longitudinal information on Best’s financial priorities over his tenure as warden would be an interesting subject of study, and his later appropriations requests might clarify how his time as warden changed his priorities and understanding of the prison and its needs. Best’s personal relationships are indicative of his perspective on criminality, and thus offer the greatest insight available on the prison’s character under his administration. Joe Arridy was arrested and brought to Colorado State Penitentiary in 1936, and lived there until his execution in 1939. James Melton came to the Colorado State Penitentiary and the Best family home in 1948. Best’s relationships with Arridy and Melton demonstrate that he was not hardened by his position; he still had the capacity for compassion and the desire to seek justice.

Although Best has often been seen as a harsh disciplinarian, he was much more. His methods of rehabilitation are quite different than what is sought today, but he was nonetheless a pioneer in rehabilitation. For a prison superintendent to foster a young inmate, especially without any official processes or authorization, would be unthinkable today. Segregating the more dangerous inmates is seen by most reformists today as inhumane and demeaning, but in Best’s time, it seemed acceptable – even visionary. The meaning of rehabilitation has changed greatly since the first half of the twentieth century, and Best must be understood as a catalyst of the rehabilitation movement. He was a true representation of what modern incarceration is: a combination of tough justice and hopeful rehabilitation.

[1] Originally researched and drafted by Emma Jerrehian, with added material by Annie Dargan.

[2] See, for instance, State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1931-32; Wayne K. Patterson and Betty Sowers Alt, Keeper of the Keys: A Warden’s Notebook (Pueblo: My Friend, the Printer, 2003).

[3] Pasquale Marranzino, “No Sponge from Roy’s Corner,” Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), unattributed fragment, undated, “Best Family” folder.

[4] “Understandable Language,” Time, July 30, 1951.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dee Kirby, “Warden Roy Best of Cañon City,” Tri-Lakes Tribune, April 23, 2010.

[7] Alan Prendergast, “Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row,” Westword, September 20, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Warden Adopts a Young Murderer,” LIFE, April 12, 1948.

[10] R.L. Preston, Stetson, Pipe and Boots—Colorado’s Cattleman Governor: A Biography About Dan Thornton (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2006), accessed November 10, 2015,

[11] Bill Miller, “One of Best’s Closest Friends Fails to Attend Funeral Services,” Rocky Mountain News, May 31, 1954.

[12] Biennial Report. . .1931-32, 2.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Ibid., 7.

[15] H.R. Cooley Outdoor Treatment of Crime,” in Corinne Bacon, ed., Prison Reform (White Plains: H.W. Wilson Company 1917), 248.

[16] Biennial Report. . .1931-32, 13.

[17] State of Colorado, Board of Coorections, Biennial Report. . .1933-34, 4.

[18] Biennial Report. . .1931-32, 14.

[19] Biennial Report. . .1933-34, 20.

[20] Biennial Report. . .1931-32, 14.

[21] Ibid., 10.

[22] Ibid., 21.

[23] Ibid.