The Walls of Red Wing

The remarkable 114-year story of Minnesota's last juvenile detention home

One summer day in 1896, the Riverside, a steam-powered yacht owned by a man named J.W. Brown, embarked from Red Wing towing a barge loaded with camping supplies. The ship was headed downriver on the Mississippi, to a spot called Point au Sable, and was accompanied by another boat, the Irene, which was also hauling supplies for Brown's expedition. The boats spent several days shuttling provisions to Point au Sable, where there was erected a huge dormitory--complete with more than 300 hammocks--a dining hall, and separate sleeping quarters for the impromptu, if ridiculously elaborate, camp's staff.

Finally, Brown's preparations complete, a ferry was dispatched from Lake City to Red Wing, where 340 boys and a full complement of staff were waiting to be transported to the camp downriver. There, at Point au Sable, the boys spent eight days swimming, fishing, and exploring the river in 20 freshly painted rowboats while Brown made several trips a day back and forth to Red Wing for additional supplies. Contemporary accounts also report that "several hundred guests...visited the camp during the eight-day stay."

Brown was at the time the superintendent of the Minnesota State Reform School in Red Wing, and the boys who made the trip to Point au Sable were residents of that institution--inmates, as they could then still be called. Many of those same boys had also built Brown's yacht in the school's shop.

The superintendent's charges were a wildly diverse group of kids--juvenile delinquents, hardened criminals, truants, incorrigibles, and the merely neglected--from all over the state of Minnesota. Many of them were immigrants' children, most had limited education, and Brown's job (in keeping with his institution's motto, "It is better to build boys than to mend men") was to make proper boys and solid citizens of them.

For 114 years the Red Wing reformatory has been a daunting specter for generations of incorrigible Minnesota youth and has served as a particularly powerful disciplinary hammer for parents and local authorities. Much of its sway, of course, is a product of the classic and generally lurid reform school myths that have been propagated by literature and American pop culture. Such places have been breeding grounds for all sorts of now universal ideas and images. From the work of Dickens to the pulp novels and B movies of the 1950s and '60s, we've been treated to a steady diet of cautionary tales of reform school brutality and squalor.

Perhaps those stereotypes are what make the tale of J.W. Brown's seemingly idyllic camping trip on the river so jarring. This was, after all, the 19th century, a period that calls up images of particularly harsh and squalid correctional institutions. And this was the Red Wing reform school, a place that made its own storied, if inadvertent, contribution to those myths and stereotypes through Bob Dylan's 1963 song "The Walls of Red Wing."

Contrary to legend, Dylan never actually spent any time at Red Wing, yet his song presents a harrowing, if entirely imagined, portrait of the institution:


Oh, the age of the inmates
I remember quite freely,
No younger than twelve,
No older than seventeen.
Thrown in like bandits
And cast off like criminals,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.

From the dirty old mess hall
You march to the brick wall,
Too weary to talk
And too tired to sing.
Oh, it's all afternoon
You remember your hometown,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing....

It's many a guard
That stands around smilin',
Holdin' his club
Like he was a king.
Hopin' to get you
Behind a wood pilin',
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.


Anyone who's ever seen Mayor of Hell, Jimmy Cagney's 1933 reform school potboiler, or even Wendy O. Williams's irresistible 1986 trash classic Reform School Girls, could certainly forgive Dylan his assumptions. And there's no doubt that such imaginative source material, however fantastic, has always been something of a useful propaganda tool for local authority, shaping as it does young people's early notions of crime and punishment. I can certainly testify that as a Minnesota adolescent with certain delinquent proclivities, I understood from an early age that I did not want to stray so far that I would find myself behind the walls of Red Wing, however nonexistent they might then have been.

That is perhaps truer now for Minnesota's precocious criminals than at any time in the institution's history. Because the reform school--now called the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing--has changed as attitudes and policies regarding juvenile incarceration and rehabilitation have evolved over the years. Its admissions criteria are now tougher than West Point's. Beginning in 1998, the requirements for placement at Red Wing were retooled so that only offenders who were classified as "serious and chronic" (repeat felons, or kids who had committed crimes that would warrant prison time for adults) could be admitted. Which means there's fat chance any of the boys currently residing at the institution will be going on an eight-day boating expedition on the Mississippi any time soon--at least not accompanied by staff.

In these unprecedented boom times for the construction and expansion of adult prisons, juvenile correctional facilities in Minnesota have been contracting and closing at an alarming rate. There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when the state ran a handful of juvenile institutions, and even during those years it was not uncommon for upward of 500 kids to be housed at Red Wing. Today Red Wing is the sole remaining state juvenile facility, and its population has now declined to 112 boys. For the sake of contrast, consider that in 2002 Texas had 4,156 juvenile inmates--up from 1,744 in 1995--spread out over 12 state facilities.

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