Posts

The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners housed inside a small county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as peachy as the cup, and both the building and the stainless steel mug 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” 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 have heard about the two graveyard shift jailers who discovered two whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed most of the pair of browned birds during the course of their December 24th overnight shift. The turkeys were designated for the prisoners’ Christmas dinner.

The prisoners were still there, locked up when New Years Day rolled around. 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 then 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 a couple hours of recreation once or twice each month, and that was limited to stepping outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity. The others who didn’t play ball simply sat down or paced back and forth on a small patch of grass next to the court.

It might’ve spoken of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways so narrow that the jailers were forced to walk next to the 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, which had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

So buckle up and join me 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 a third world country. And, it was in use not so long ago.

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

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard in its entirety, a simple square of concrete with an adjoining and similarly sized patch of grass. 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 dark, damp, and smelly 6×9 concrete cell.

During recreation time two patrol deputies were called in off the road to stand guard outside the fence. They were required to watch over the activities, armed with Remington 870 Wingmaster shotguns. The 870 Wingmaster is often a go-to weapons when in the business of law enforcement.

This, the sheriff’s order to have patrol deputies oversee recreation time, left the county less safe due to having two less deputies available to respond to calls. If an emergency arose the inmates were immediately herded back to their cells. Once they were safely tucked away the two patrol deputies left the jail with sirens yelping, lights flashing, and tires squealing.

Recreation yard

Upon entering this county jail, we first set foot inside a tiny lobby. This was where citizens stood at counter to sign documents, speak with deputies and/or dispatchers, hand over money orders for inmate commissary accounts, file criminal complaints, and report crimes, etc.

The lobby  also served as the visiting room. It was where family and friends 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 behind the business counter, or other nearby area, until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area. This photo was taken from behind the counter where citizens filed reports, etc. The space was quite small.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to a small cell where they were locked inside. The cell was on the opposite side of the wall, directly behind the two green chairs in the above image.

Inmate visitation cell.

The two small windows in the visitation cell are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous photo. 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.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area (to the right of the green lobby chairs in the photo) 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. Trustees were required to be inside their cells by 9 p.m. each evening, where they’d remain locked inside until 5:30 a.m. in preparation for breakfast service.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were extremely narrow, which was dangerous for the jailers who worked there. The facility was heated by old and clunky boilers that needed constant service and repairs. Radiators were there, inside the corridors, but were scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever.

The only airflow came through small widows. In the next image you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. A portable TV sat on a wonky, wall-mounted shelf next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Inmates were not allowed access to the TV controls, and reception was quite poor and was achieved with “rabbits ear” and Loop” antennas. Jailers changed channels when requested, during their rounds. But prisoners will be prisoners, so they manufactured makeshift antenna controls fashioned from string or wires, using the “remote controls” to swivel the antenna to dial in stations. Not allowed but, as I said, prisoners will be prisoners.

Of course, jailers often confiscated the strings and wires, and tightly rolled up newspapers used for reaching across the hallway to change a channel. Those items are considered as contraband in lockup facilities because they can be used to strangle, commit suicide, or attack officers. Newspapers and magazine pages can be rolled and formed in ways that make them nearly as hard as wood and are often found with sharpened objects inserted into the pointed ends. Doing so makes them as lethal as any spear or other stabbing type of weapon. Very deadly.

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 the jailer below was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Notice the pieces of white paper poking through the bars. They’re actually envelops placed there by prisoners. This was their version of postal letter boxes. Each morning a jailer collected the envelopes and carried them back to the office where he’d place stamps on each one, if the prisoners had enough money in their account to cover the costs. Afterward, a USPS letter carrier stopped by the jail to pick up outgoing mail and drop off incoming mail.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

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

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 trays.

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 same corridors used by the jailers when making rounds.

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet attached to the wall outside each block of four cells. The compartment was made of thick steels and contained the door controls. The same key also locked and unlocked all interior jail doors, such as the cell doors, supply closets, access to plumbing and electrical systems, and the main “in/out” door to the jail that connected to the lobby/visiting area.

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, narrow 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 of his cell when required, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to “gently” coax remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in “the hole” for not following instructions and jail rules. The unruly inmate would also lose commissary and visiting privileges.

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 …

 

Thinking back to the days prior to working in law enforcement I recall the intense desire to become a police officer.

I especially wanted to work in a sheriff’s office. However, openings in the local sheriff’s office were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was a job that deputies loved and there they remained. Sure, I’d applied and I’d spoken to the sheriff to express my eagerness to become a deputy. But his reply was the typical “I’ll keep you in mind if an opening becomes available.”

So, while impatiently waiting, I decided to apply for a job as a corrections officer within Virginia’s state prison system. And, soon after applying I received a call directing me to come in for an interview.

The day for the initial meeting finally arrived and I was escorted inside to a small conference room. To set the stage, a three person interview panel were seated behind a long table. The chair where my escort indicated that I was to sit, was positioned approximately eight feet in front of the trio of white-shirted ranking officers—one captain, a lieutenant, and a sergeant. No one had passed out smiles that morning.

The captain spoke first, introducing himself and the others. He then asked me to tell them a bit about myself and my background and why on earth did I want to work in a place that could be described as hell’s stinky armpit.

Could you, would you?

When I finished my opening spiel, the real questioning began. “Have you ever belonged to a gang?” “Do you personally know anyone who’s in prison?” “Have you ever been struck, punched, or physically injured by anyone?” What are your views on the death penalty?” Could you shoot another person, if necessary?” Could you bring yourself to shoot a coworker if they’d been taken hostage by an inmate and that shooting through the fellow officer was the only means of preventing the escape?” “Could you?” Would you? And why?”

A few weeks later I received another call instructing me to report to the prison for a physical and a drug test. Two weeks after the exam and drug testing I was officially hired and was scheduled to report for orientation and assignment of uniforms and other equipment, including the first badge I’d ever pinned to a uniform shirt.

Then I received my duty assignment, a prison in the middle of nowhere that consisted of four separate sections, with each building surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence. The four individual areas were contained by a double set of larger fencing that encompassed the entire place. Towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter and an asphalt drive circled the prison, just outside the fence.

Armed officers drove around the compound on a never ending loop. I found out during my orientation that this particular prison was where the state housed many of the inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle.

The prisoners were divided into four categories—those with medical and mental problems, bad-to-the bone dangerous, younger inmates, and finally a mixture of “not super rowdy but were there anyway.” Inmates classified as either of the four groups were housed appropriately—medical and mental were assigned to C Unit, younger inmates to D Unit, the mean and nasty to B Unit, and “the rest” to A.

The Guard Shack

An officer’s station, a small building, sat in the middle of the main compound yard. Inmates were allowed inside this area only when moving from place to place and under controlled circumstances—medical department, visiting room, etc. Each individual section had it’s own recreation yard. The inmates were not permitted to mix (No As with Bs, etc.). The only exception would be during visitations and medical visits.

Nurses delivered medication to each unit. It was at this time when prisoners were permitted to address their medical needs. They would then schedule an appointment to see the prison doctor who, by the way, only visited the prison only once or twice per month unless there was an emergency.

Okay, so I’m at work on my first day and they’ve assigned me to the main compound. My job was to check the passes of inmates before manually unlocking the gates to allow them outside of their designated unit yards. Yes, each gate was locked with a large padlock and I carried a huge ring of keys, many of which I never learned their purpose.

When I arrived at the main gate that morning, an officer used a key to open the lock and let me inside. We walked to the “guard shack” where he gave me a quick briefing about the goings-on during his shift (nothing at all) and then handed me the keys. We walked back to the gate where I opened the lock to let him out. On the way we passed by large man wearing jeans, work boots, a green long-sleeved shirt, and a bright yellow hardhat. The officer spoke as did Mr. Hardhat. Then I snapped the lock closed and returned to the guard shack.

Belly of the Beast!

I was in the process of entering a bit of information in the logbook when “Hardhat” poked his head inside the door. He said good morning and offered his name and mentioned he’d be around if I needed anything. Of course, I appreciated his presence since I felt as if I’d been shoved into a caged arena as the star of a Roman execution ad bestias, “to the beasts.”

Assuming Hardhat was a prison maintenance worker I gladly took him up on his offer and he joined me out on the yard to advise me as to where and when inmate movements should take place. He also kindly provided whispered information regarding which prisoners could be trusted and which could not.

An hour or so later Hardhat suddenly made himself scarce when he spied a sergeant on his way to check on me. Everything was in order—inmate movements were flowing smoothly, logbooks were in excellent shape, keys and other equipment were present, etc. He was pleased.

As my supervisor started to walk away he stopped and turned around to say, “By the way, if you see an inmate walking around wearing a hardhat, send him to C Unit. He didn’t show up for an appointment. Not unusual for him, though, so not to worry. He often hangs out in this area. But he’s as wacky as a box of Fruit Loops. Sometimes he thinks he works here.”

Believe me, the call from the sheriff’s office didn’t come soon enough.