How far jails have come

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If you have never been incarcerated in a jail before, you probably have never given much thought about one. By the end of the 18th century, imprisonment was the chief mode of punishment for all but capital crimes. St. John Parish has had a number of jails. When Percy Hebert was the sheriff of St. John, there was a small jail in Reserve. It was located across the street from the St. John theatre and everyone in the parish called it the “sweatbox.” It was a small concrete building about 12 by 12 in size having one window covered with iron bars. It was used mainly to hold a prisoner for a day or two while they sobered up after a night out on the town.

On Cardinal Street in LaPlace

was what was known as the holding jail. This jail had several cells, and

a prisoner was kept there until

they were transferred to Edgard to the main jail. After the Edgard jail was no longer used, St. John built a new jail facility at 1801 Airline Highway. This jail is used today and houses federal prisoners. A new jail was built on Barton Granier Drive with a capacity to hold 312 prisoners.

Since building the Louisiana Treasures Museum, I have been able to purchase two old jails. The first jail that I purchased was built in 1906 by the Manly Jail Company located in Dalton, Ga. It held 12 prisoners and was pulled by four horses. It was used to transport prisoners and to bring the chain gang out to work on the roads. It was built at a cost of $3,500 dollars and weighed 5,800 pounds. It was said that the jail paid for itself in its first year of operation because the prisoners were left locked up at the work site, and no guards were needed when the doors to this cell were locked.

The jail was built of solid iron with the bathroom facilities being a small iron pipe through the floor and a bucket under the floor that was emptied every morning.

The second jail I have located and purchased was built in Detroit, Mich., on Oct. 8, 1880. It is also made of solid iron with iron straps and an iron floor. This jail was located in Montana, taken apart and hauled to Louisiana.

When you were locked up in one of these jails, you had no phone, no heat, no air, no screens on the windows, no visitors and no guard watching you. In other words, when you were locked up in one of these jails you were in trouble, and all privileges flew out the window. In the 20th century, efforts were made in the United States to eliminate unsanitary and demoralizing prison conditions.

The jails are on display outside the Louisiana Treasures Museum located on Highway 22 West of Ponchatoula. Stop by to take photos and visit the Law Enforcement Memorial located inside the museum. Call me for museum hours at 225-294-8352.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Trreasures Museum located at 10290 Highway 22, West Pontchatoula.