The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners inside a county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as fabulous as the cup. Both were well past their expiration dates when the county finally gave in and demolished the old place.

As they say, “if those walls could’ve talked.” If so, we’d have heard tales of jailhouse coffee potent enough to dissolve steel beams. A cook who somehow transformed  liver and onions into a dish that even the pickiest of inmate diners enjoyed. We’d also have heard about the graveyard shift jailers who discovered whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed them during the course of their shift. The turkeys were for the prisoner’s Christmas dinner. The prisoners were still there on New Years Day. The jailers were not, courtesy of a very angry sheriff who, at the last minute, had to hire a caterer to prepare additional turkeys for the prisoners.

The old red brick jail building, if it were able to speak before its demise, might’ve told us about the prisoner who managed to smuggle a gun inside and dared officers to “come and get it.” Certainly we’d have heard about the roaches and mice and the general funky stench of a place with little ventilation (no air movement at all in some corners of the facility).

The jailhouse could’ve gone into detail about how prisoners were allowed recreation once or twice each month and that was only to step outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity.

It might also speak of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways too narrow, forcing officers to walk next to bars. No cameras “in the back” Therefore, when jailers opened the door to enter the lockup area they had no idea what waited for them on the other side. Had inmates escaped their cells, and that had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

Anyway, let’s go inside for the only peek available inside this small facility. Believe it or not, this place was located in a county within the U.S., not in some third world country. And, it was in use not so awful long ago.

Follow me, but don’t touch anything, including those top two strands of wire. They’re electrified. A human bug zapper!

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard, a simple square of concrete. Inmates were allowed outside once or twice per month. Since there are no day rooms inside, it was a rare treat to see and do anything that wasn’t inside a 6×9 concrete cell.

Rec yard

Upon entering this jail, we first set foot inside this tiny lobby that also served as the visiting room. Visitors stood facing one of two small windows that were equipped with sound holes so that inmates and visitors could hear the other speak. No phones and no contact. FYI – should officers arrest and deliver a suspect to the jail they brought them through this lobby area. Therefore, visitors would be made to move to a secure office or other area until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to this small cell where they were locked inside. The two small windows are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous image. Until visitations, a piece of cardboard was positioned over the windows to prevent prisoners, the trustees who cleaned the jail and were allowed to roam about freely, from seeing out into the office area/lobby.

Inmate visitation cell.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area we first pass the trustee cells. The door to these cells remained unlocked during daylight hours to allow those prisoners to complete their chores—cleaning, mopping, delivering meals, etc. They were locked in at night.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were narrow, making for dangerous conditions for the jailers. The jail was heated by steam (boilers) and radiators were there, but scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever. The only airflow came from  small widows. Here, you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. The electrical cord is connected to a portable TV sitting on the wonky shelf, also at top left next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Makeshift antenna controls were fashioned from string or wires. Not allowed, but prisoners will be prisoners …

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

To show just how dangerous this place was for deputies, notice how close this jailer was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

There were no light fixtures inside the cells. Instead, each block of four cells was illuminated by floodlights mounted to the corridor ceilings. The fixture below hangs above one of the few windows in the block.

Floodlights gave the impression of peering in at zoo animals on display.

Prisoners received their meals through horizontal slotted openings in the bars. Trustees delivered the meals.

Tray slot

Meals were prepared in the jail kitchen. Trustees received meal trays from the cooks through a pass-through window leading from the kitchen to the jail corridor. Coffee was always available for deputies, 24 hours a day. Inmates were given coffee with their breakfast. One of the perks of being a trustee was to have coffee whenever they wanted, during daylight hours. Deputies and prisoners drank coffee from the same pot, the one pictured on the countertop below.

Jail kitchen

There were no showers inside the cell blocks. Instead, deputies escorted prisoners to showers located in another area … once each week, if they were lucky. Showers had no floor drains, therefore water spilled out in the corridors

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet housing the door controls. The same key locked and unlocked all interior jail doors

Folger-Adams key

With the cabinet door unlocked, the jailer opened and closed cell doors using levers and a large wheel. Each lever controlled the lock to one cell door. The jailer pulled the desired lever down to lock a door(s) and then turned the wheel to “roll” the barred doors either open or closed. This was all performed manually. No electronic controls. Should a door not close completely, its corresponding light (below the levers) illuminated with a bright red glow.

The door to the jailer’s right (below) was the entrance to a block of four cells and a very small small day room. When the jailer opened the cell doors, it released each of those four prisoners into the day room. He’d then roll the doors shut until night. Prisoners were not permitted to remain in their cells during daytime hours.

If a prisoner refused to come out, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in the hole for not following instructions and jail rules.

Wheel of Misfortune

And that, my friends, was your look inside a place not many have seen. Those who have wish they hadn’t, I’m sure.

Cheers …


6 replies
  1. Gail Legate
    Gail Legate says:

    Lee, glad you’re back on DL. When I was young, I worked one summer for a small theatre company who used the main floor of the local town hall for it’s productions. The jail cells were in the basement – very similar to what you have pictured. If nothing else kept me honest, the thought of those cells did – and does!

  2. J. R. Lindermuth
    J. R. Lindermuth says:

    Interesting glimpse ‘inside,’ Lee. Our old county lockup (much like this one) was destroyed in a fire and is in the process of being replaced by a modern structure. An investor who believes history should be preserved and sees a tourist potential in what’s left of the old one (erected in the 1870s) has purchased it. I’m more inclined to hope the stories can be preserved. The county’s last hanging took place in the jail yard in 1913.

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