Who was Ralph Alvis?

January 12, 2017

When re-naming the Franklin County Halfway House, founders used the name of legendary corrections leader

Who was Ralph Alvis?

Although Ralph W. Alvis may not be well-known today, when founders of the new Franklin County Halfway House considered re-naming the agency in 1968, he was the ideal namesake. A well-known and highly-respected community leader, Alvis had been warden of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1948 to 1959.

Alvis didn’t look or act the part of a traditional warden. Just 43 years old when he arrived in Columbus for the job, “Big Red” was a former college and professional football and baseball player. “His wife, Charlotte and two young daughters live in an apartment over the entrance to the pen,” a 1949 Columbus Citizen-Journal article reported.

Another story about Alvis described his “baby pink Cadillac, which looks out of place parked in front of the gray walls on Spring Street.” A few years later, the burley former athlete was driving a yellow convertible.

Despite the fact that in 1955 the penitentiary population was at an all-time high of 5,235 men ā€“ the second-largest such institution in the country ā€“ “things go smoothly,” a Dispatch article noted. By that time, Alvis was renowned for reforms he had made, earning him admiration from inmates and corrections professionals alike.

“Among the advances in prison administration credited to Alvis and his staff were the abolition of lock-step marching, extension of privileges in smoking, visiting and writing, extended educational, recreational and religious programs, establishment of social and psychological services, establishment of a vocational training program and training programs for employees,” the Dispatch later wrote in his front-page obituary.

Alvis had been the first man selected for the original Ohio State Highway Patrol class in 1933, and spent his entire career in law enforcement. He was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, having witnessed the deaths of 53 men and women in the electric chair.

Although regarded as one of the outstanding prison administrators in the country, he left his post as warden after 11 years. His reason for leaving: “The executions will remain.”

Early in his tenure at the Ohio Penitentiary, Alvis was asked about his approach to his work with inmates. He knew hundreds of them by first name.

“Each man has a problem,” he said. “He’s an individual and he should be treated as such if we’re ever to rehabilitate him and make him useful to society. That’s our one aim here. The better we do it, the better we’re doing our job.”

Alvis died of cancer on August 5, 1967 ā€“ the same month the Franklin County Halfway House purchased its first facility. A year later when seeking an appropriate name, the answer was simple: Alvis.

Cathy Blackford, Communications Consultant, is the primary author of this blog post.

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