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Former jail brings back memories for sheriff

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Sheriff Charles Jett visits the former Stafford County Jail building, where he began his career decades ago. PHOTOS BY AUTUMN PARRY / THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Sheriff Charles Jett visits the former Stafford County Jail building, where he began his career decades ago. PHOTOS BY AUTUMN PARRY / THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Back in the day, to cool down inmates in the old Stafford County Jail when summer heat was stifling, firefighters used to simply hose down the brick building.

The lack of air conditioning meant summers could be brutal—and sometimes attorneys would try to get cases postponed so inmates could be jailed in the winter instead.

This week, on a bitterly cold morning that made such heat difficult to recall, Sheriff Charles Jett and Capt. Steve Carey gave what may be their last tour of the former jail along Courthouse Road. Demolition crews have started to tear down the brick building that housed inmates for 35 years.

Sheriff Charles Jett illuminates rooms inside the old jail, which has been vacant for years.

Sheriff Charles Jett illuminates rooms inside the old jail, which has been vacant for years.

“There’s a lot of memories in here,” Jett said Wednesday morning, standing in the former jail control room. Inmates were processed through two doors now leaning against a wall; they’re being saved and could be part of Stafford’s future museum. Guards would store new inmates’ possessions in a nearby closet and hand out orange jail outfits to new guests.

It looks vastly different than it did from the 1960s through 2000. Now, demolition equipment is parked in the room, ready to continue drilling through concrete when the time comes. Earlier this week, part of the exterior wall had already been knocked through, debris of bricks and broken concrete covering the ground.

Once the old jail comes down, the land will become a parking lot for the courthouse.

Both Jett and Carey started with the Sheriff’s Office as jail guards, back at the tender age of 19.

Years later, they reminisce about their first workplace, where about a dozen people still with the department got their starts.

“This was the launching pad for a lot of our careers,” said Carey, commander of court services and civil process, who began working in the jail in 1984.

Over three years, he learned one of the most important lessons: good communication.

“When you’re only armed with keys as a law enforcement officer, you have to have a keen ability to communicate,” said Carey. “The most valuable weapon is your pie hole and your ability to talk to people.”

This summer will mark his 30th year with the Sheriff’s Office.

Carey was hired under former Sheriff R.L. Ashby.

So was current Sheriff Jett, in 1978.

These cells were used for solitary confinement

These cells were used for solitary confinement

Stafford’s population was at a now-unimaginable 38,000 at the time, after a boom brought on by construction of Interstate 95. Inmates and jail guards got to know each other better then, said Jett, who worked in the jail for just one year before being promoted to patrol duties.

Demolition on the 20,000-square-foot jail has been in the plans for about a year or so, but for various reasons, kept getting pushed back.

Sun Demolition, based in Beltsville, Md., was hired as the contractor for the project.

Workers took a break Wednesday morning as Jett and Carey showed off the building, likely for the last time.

The building opened around 1964—the same year as Stafford’s 300th anniversary celebration. It’s coming down in 2014—the year of the 350th anniversary.

The old jail was originally supposed to hold a maximum of 43 inmates, but a growing population called for the addition of extra beds as years went on.

Three solitary cells were available, along with eight cell blocks with five cells each—marked with graffiti from its stint as the regional jail’s annex. One block was set up for tours, and had mattresses, pillows and orange jumpsuits.

Carey and Jett tested out a key in one of the heavy doors.

“Everyone that ever worked here will not forget the sound of the doors—boom, boom, boom, boom,” Jett said.

As the officers led the way through the old jail’s darkened halls, Jett with a flashlight in hand, Carey remarked, “It’s a lot creepy.”

Demolition crews have started taking down the old jail to make room for a parking lot for the courthouse.

Demolition crews have started taking down the old jail to make room for a parking lot for the courthouse.

The men pointed out details they remembered from their stints as guards.

Buttons on TVs outside cell blocks were within reach if inmates rolled up copies of The Free Lance–Star into a long rod to slide them through the bars. Then inmates could change the channel.

If they yelled inappropriate comments to women leaving the courthouse next door, guards would close the windows, Jett said, remembering what it was like to crank them shut. Then, it’d get hotter inside.

Women were rarely jailed here, and if they were, it was only a temporary stay, Jett said. In 1998, the jail hired its first female employee.

In 1976, one inmate successfully escaped through a second-floor door left over from construction. He was later apprehended, Jett said.

One other attempt was stopped midway, after prisoners sawed through three bars with a hacksaw that had been passed through a window outside.

Other rooms in the jail included a kitchen and a small legal library.

In 1998, the Rappahannock Regional Jail—which serves Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties—used the building as an annex of its property on Lafayette Boulevard in the city. Two years later, inmates and employees moved into the new building, off U.S. 1 south of Stafford Courthouse. Today, about 1,200 inmates are housed at the regional jail.

The old jail became an office and storage area, but then was practically abandoned, sitting unused for some time. Power was shut off years ago, speeding up the decay inside.

Peeling paint hangs from the walls and ceilings and litters the floors. Dented filing cabinets sit in a front room, once an office with two desks for deputies.

Empty boxes fill the closet-sized room where the dispatcher—all of one person—answered emergency calls prior to 911. Two lines came through back then, and if the dispatcher was off, a deputy would fill in, with no training.

Today, dispatchers in the emergency call center, found in an impressive room full of computers inside the public safety building on Courthouse Road, must undergo six months of training.

In 2008, the Sheriff’s Office and part of the Fire and Rescue Department moved into the Humphrey Building, a 114,000-square-foot secure building.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

 

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