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An old tin cup sits on a shelf in my office. People who see it rarely ask about it, with most not giving it so much as a second glance.

The cup, while scratched and slightly dented, still has a bit of shine left on its surface, Those thin etched lines resemble an intricately-drawn roadmap. And, if one knows the history of the cup, well, each line is indeed a well-traveled path, and each line has a story to tell. While I don’t know the details of all of the stories held by my old tin cup, I know a few.

When the cup was first manufactured, World War II had recently ended as had the manufacturing of cordite. Schools in Virginia had not yet been fully integrated and Arthur Ashe’s father was working as a Special Policeman for Richmond, Virginia’s recreation department. Arthur Ashe was the only African American man to ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

As tin cups made their way from factories to their final destinations, the Virginia State Penitentiary complex, built in 1800 at Belvidere and Spring Street, in Richmond, was in full swing. It was a horrid place that was so bad the ACLU once labeled it the “most shameful prison in America.” But it didn’t start out that way.

The idea to build the Virginia State Penitentiary was brought to the table by Thomas Jefferson.

In 1785, Jefferson served in Paris as ambassador. It was then and there when he noticed a different type of incarceration, one that was an experiment of the effect of labor by inmates in solitary confinement.

Jefferson believed that the object of punishment should be discipline, repentance and reform. Not as vengeance. So, when he returned from Paris he proposed his “labor in confinement” for prisoners. His idea was to have prisoners work on public works projects during the day then spend their non-work hours in small solitary confinement cells so they could reflect on their crimes.

It was 10 years later when Virginia lawmakers moved forward on Jefferson’s plan. Construction began on the Virginia State Penitentiary, soon to be nicknamed “Spring Street,” a moniker used by both inmates and staff. The name Spring Street quickly became associated with darkness and torture and pain … and the electric chair.

Prisoners at Spring Street drank from tin cups, much like the one in my office.

The Virginia State Penitentiary was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who later designed the U.S. Capitol.

The cell doors at the Spring Street prison had no windows, which meant that officers had to physically open them to check on the inmates inside. The prison was unheated, and believe me, it gets cold in Virginia during the winter months.To keep warm, prisoners wrapped themselves with thin German-made wool blankets. Each prisoner was give one blanket, their only protection against the freezing blasts of air that blew in through the barred windows.

The prison was not equipped with a sewage system; therefore, prisoners were forced to collect waste in buckets and then empty them down a trough that flowed into a nearby pond. Summertime in Richmond, Va. can be extremely hot with humidity so thick that flies nearly swim in mid air. It was after 100 years had passed by that officials decided to improve the sewage situation.

Tin cups remained in use throughout, during executions, riots, the incarceration of both notorious and noteworthy inmates, such as former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the evil Briley brothers, a duo whose vicious and vile crimes I’ve written and about and detailed here on this blog.

At the close of the the Civil War, the entire population of the Spring Street prison escaped following the Richmond evacuation fire.

The tin cups, though, remained at the prison, waiting for the return of the prisoners.

Hundreds upon hundreds of tin cups where in use just a half-mile away.

Virginia began executions by electric chair at the Spring Street penitentiary in 1908. The last hanging was in 1909. Executions took place barely a half mile from the center of Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus, where in later years (much later) my wife Denene was hard at work earning her PhD in pathology.

A few blocks further down the way was the location of the state lab where I delivered crime scene evidence for examination and testing. The state morgue was also there. It was the place where I observed numerous autopsies performed on murder victims. It was where the autopsy was conducted on the armed bank robber I shot and killed during a shootout.

It was there at the basement morgue when the medical examiner told me, in detail, that four of the five rounds I fired were fatal rounds. The fifth, the first round I fired in response to him shooting at me, was a shot to the side of the head, caused massive damage, but had that been the only round to have struck him, the shooter/robber may have survived.

A Hanging

In the summer of 1900 Brandt O’Grady was hanged along side Walter Cotton. O’Grady was white and Cotton was black. The hangings were in retaliation for the brutal murder of several individuals.

A mob of citizens, both whites and blacks, stormed the jail and pulled Cotton from his shackles and hanged him from the Cherry tree in the corner of the courthouse yard. Minutes later the black townspeople demanded that O’Grady also be hanged so the group forcefully removed Mr. O’Grady from his cell and “strung him up” on the Cherry tree next to Cotton’s  lifeless body.

Inside the old red brick jail in Southside Virginia, the land of cotton, peanuts, and soybeans, were enough tin cups for each prisoner to have one he could call his own, as long as he was serving time there.

When I started working as a sheriff’s deputy, way back during the days of revolvers, patrol cars with those super long whip antennas, and when pepper spray was unheard of, my first assignment was to serve as a jailer. Part of that duty was to oversee the delivery of food trays at mealtimes. Prisoner trustees—short-timers with good jail records— carried the trays from the kitchen to each cell.

The trays we used were the kind you see in school across the country, hard plastic with divided sections that separate each portion of food from another. They were passed to the prisoners through “tray slots” in the cell doors.

At the top right of each tray was a tin cup filled with the beverage du jour. At breakfast time they contained coffee. To accompany lunch and dinner, the beverage was a fruit-flavored drink similar to Kool-Aid.

Prisoners were not allowed to keep the cups inside their cells. To do so was an infraction of jail time which could’ve led to time in “the hole” or a loss of privileges such as visitations, phone use, or their weekly canteen service.

But, inmates will be inmates, and they seemed to find ways to steal a cup or two. The kitchen staff was responsible for the accurate inventory and control of all kitchen items (cups, silverware, trays, etc. Someone was accountable for those items at all times, and it was serious business if something turned up missing. And yes, it’s true. Sometimes those cups were used to bang against the bars. That’s a sound one doesn’t forget too easily.

Tin cups could be fashioned into all sorts of weapons, of course. They were also used for cooking. They’re great for heating coffee, soup, etc., when held over an open fire. Fire, of course, is not permitted at any time. But prisoners find a way. They always seem to find a way to do, well, anything.

My old tired eyes have seen many prisoners over the years, many of whom shared some pretty incredible stories. Some not so true, but others were so fantastic that they manage to flicker cross the front of my mind to this day. I still feel the emotion they exhibited when telling those personal tales.

Those men sipped from their tin cups during holidays, peering out of small, narrow windows, wishing for someone, anyone, to come for a visit. Some drank from the shallow metal cups during their last days on earth, knowing that in just a few hours an executioner would “pull the switch.”

Today, I see my own face in the cup’s reflection, but it’s someone I barely recognize. I’m much older now, but in my mind I’m still the same person who oversaw the delivery of those cups to thirsty prisoners. Many of men were grateful for something as simple as a morning cup of coffee, something we take for granted because we have the opportunity to brew one whenever we like. Not so for the folks who live in captivity.

Yes, the face I see looking back at me is far different than the person who used to peer back at me. Life has moved on and it’s sometimes difficult to let go of the past. But knowing where I’ve been sure goes a long way towards helping me get to where it is I’m going.

Like most things that come and go with the changing of the times, tin cups in jails and prison are likely a thing of the past.

Newcomers to my office barely give my old tin cup a first glance, seeing merely an old and empty, scratched and slightly dented, drinking vessel. Me, I see a tin cup that’s brimming with a lifetime of sorrow, pain, death, misery, happiness, tears, laughter, and more. It’s a cup that runneth over with emotion.

A cup filled with precious memories is what sits in my office. Some good and some not so good. But precious they are. And yes, the cup in my office was once used by murderers, robbers, rapists, and burglars.

Here’s to you.

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 …

 

It’s not been your day. First, the wife called to say the toilet won’t flush, the dog dug up the neighbor’s prized rose bush, and the principal suspended your oldest kid for drinking a beer in the restroom.

On your way home you stop at a buddy’s house to shoot the breeze and maybe pick up a small bag of pot to help shed the day’s troubles from your mind. Then, just as your pal pulls a quarter ounce from his 42-pound stash, the police kick in the front door. It’s a raid and you’re handcuffed and hauled downtown. Who knew your friend had been on the narcotics cops’ radar for the better part of a year?

Stick cuffs

One of the officers, McColdhands, according to his nametag, was a nice enough guy. He didn’t push or shove and he spoke to you in a nice way. No yelling or cursing. But he did snap the cuffs around your wrists, and he didn’t read you your rights (you later learned that’s not necessary because he didn’t ask any questions about your involvement in illegal activity).

Despite his cordial demeanor, you still hate his a** with a passion. After all, he just took away your freedom, right? Yeah, sure, it’s his fault, along with the other officers who busied themselves digging through drawers and closets and the refrigerator and the toilet tank.

Handcuffed eyes

But who knew good old Billy Buck, your friend since high school, had so much dope in the house? And all that cash? One of the cops said there was at least a hundred-thousand. Still …

After waiting in the backseat of a locked police car for what seemed like an eternity, Officer McColdhands slipped in behind the wheel, said some sort of gobbledygook into a radio microphone, and off you went to, well …

Welcome to jail.

Points to note:

  • You have no right to privacy while in jail.
  • Showering and shaving times and days are limited in most jails.
  • Telephone calls may be monitored and/or recorded.
  • Watching television is a privilege, not a right.
  • Visitation is a privilege, not a right.
  • Telephone use is a privilege, not a right.
  • Some jails charge inmates a modest daily housing fee.
  • Some jails charge a small fee for medical care.
  • Most jails and prisons have libraries, and some of the books there are YOURS!
  • Jail and prison are not the same.

Corridor inside an old county jail

A jail is typically operated by a county or city government. Jails house:

  • People who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or sentencing.
  • People who have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense and are serving a sentence of (typically) less than 1 year.
  • People who have been sentenced to prison—a sentence of one year or more—and are awaiting transfer to a state facility (prison).

*As always, laws and policies in your area my differ from those in another part of the country. For example, see Gina’s comment below.