Looking back at old Van Buren jail

By | December 4, 2018 2:29 pm

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By Hansel Moore

Near the entrance of the former Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office, on the old courthouse square, stands the Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus. For thousands of years, they have been the framework of a moral standard for societies. These 10 biblical laws are the foundation of the nation’s legal system.

Locally, legal matters were contested just a few hundred feet in the courthouse located across the street on the internal hub of the square. If a person broke the law, then there was a chance the individual might spend some time with the Van Buren Sheriff Department.

As the rural county of Van Buren experiences growing changes, it has begun progressing into the future, by building a state-of-the-art correctional facility located at the campus of the administration building. The need for an updated place to incarcerate individuals seems to have been long overdue, at least when witnessing the conditions in the recently evacuated facility.

“If we keep on doing what we have been doing, we will keep on getting what we have been getting. If we want to change what we have been getting in life, we will have to change what we have been doing.” (Pinned to the wall of the deputies’ office)

This was the entrance to the former sheriff’s office. Through this door the processing or booking procedure began.

An integral part of intake process is the booking photo. Many have been taken with this as the backdrop.

Upon arrival, all personal items were secured in this locked closet area.

The basic, brick structure was constructed before most of the current employees were born. The dated government gray paint has been separating from the walls for decades.

The divider between the kitchen area and a special area for “high concern” inmates. This area was for individuals who were segregated from the general population due to concerns for safety and compliance issues.

The segregated area of the old Van Buren County Jail housed two to four inmates per unit.

The general population area was no frill housing. Steel “beds” we lined with thin pads, which added minimal comfort. Originally designed for 12 inmates, this area often housed two to three times that number of inmates.

Privacy in the general population area was only provided by a curtain divider while using the toileting facilities or shower.

Part of the history of the general population area is an attempted escape through the ceiling. The individual did make it to the roof of the jail, but his freedom ended in a short period of time, as deputies redirected him to return to the incarceration areas inside the building.

Another attempt was to escape or hide in this venting cover located approximately 5 feet above the floor. This cage-like cover is just a few feet in length, width, and height. It took an extreme act as a contortionist to succeed in this action. This individual ended up staying on the inside.

A change that has occurred since the original conception of the jail is the need for a separate area to secure an increasing number of female inmates. This enclosed area was adapted for 10-14 women, without much individual personal space.

Over the years, the metal frame of the women’s beds have succumbed to wear and tear. Creative residents utilized shreds of sheets to make temporary fixes to improve comfort any way possible.

A small town jail has limited financial resources for improvements, particularly when it comes to decor or measures of comfort. The visitation room was basically a small area separated by a Plexiglas divider. A small library existed for reading material to escape, at least mentally, from the walls that contained them.

The back outer area of the facility is a square fenced in area, designed to allow inmates time for fresh air and sunshine. The 10 -foot linked fencing was topped with razor wire to discourage any climbing that might be considered.

Dietary needs were met through meals prepared in the kitchen that was probably updated last when the Partridge Family was popular.

There are simple signs of history throughout the old office of corrections. Generations of Van Buren residents have stepped foot into this small hub of the county. Many have worked as correctional officers, deputies, or support personnel. Some have entered as ministries to provide spiritual support and guidance. Dedicated family members have entered to discuss plans with loved ones. And, yes, some have come to stay for a while, trading their civilian clothes for a more noticeable fashion choice.

A new building was constructed to meet the stringent requirements of housing persons who have broken laws. The correctional facility is state-of-the-art with video surveillance and a variety of much needed equipment and updates. Most importantly, there is much needed space that helps minimize the negative effects of overcrowding prisoners.

In hindsight, the Van Buren Sheriff Department has operated on a minimal budget to meet the overstretched needs of a growing community.

The team of the Van Buren Sheriff Department deserves the gratitude and support of the community that it serves. It is this group of men and women who make sacrifices to protect and serve their neighbors.

comments » 1

  1. Comment by James R. Frysinger

    December 5, 2018 at 6:18 am

    Thankfully our county now has a modern judicial center, jail, and sheriff’s office! I worked as a Judicial Commissioner for a few years in the old facility and I well remember it’s run-down state and crowding. Congratulations to Sheriff Carter and his department on their new facility!


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