Holston Mountain Artisans

Our non-profit, member-owned cooperative preserves and promotes the traditional and contemporary arts and crafts of our region

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214 Park St SE
Abingdon, VA 24210

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The Prisoners

Bill noted that most of the prisoners were not violent men. They were in for drunkenness, disturbing the peace, and petty theft, so for the most part Bill was allowed by his parents to assist the prisoners. The prisoners requested various items from the local stores and young Bill, for a small fee, was glad to go to the store and buy what the prisoners needed. And that’s how he made his pocket change!

The prisoners were also allowed to have musical instruments in the jail and it was not unusual to have Jam sessions blaring out of the windows.  On one particular evening, the music was particularly loud and mournful.  You could hear the words of “The Old Wooden Cross” being played and sung by almost everyone in the jail.  Unbeknownst to the jailor, a girlfriend/wife of one of the prisoners had smuggled in a hacksaw blade sewn into a belt.  The loud singing covered his sawing efforts to escape!!!  In fact, the prisoner did escape, but he was caught shortly thereafter, and I guess he had to change his tune!!!

Since most of the prisoners were not of the violent type, they were used to maintain the building.  An old coal-fired steam boiler serviced both buildings.  In the winter, the boiler was hand stoked by the prisoners, the so-called “Trustees.”

Prisoners were regularly transported by bus to other facilities since the jail was not set up for long term prisoners.  If your sentence was 30 days or less you probably did your time in the jail. If you had a sentence of more than 30 days, but less than a year, you were ushered off to the State Farm. Prisoners with sentences of more than a year, usually felonies, were sent to the State Penitentiary in Richmond.  Like all jails, there was a unique terminology that was common among the prisoners. Fellow prisoners would say they were either taking “Short Chain Charlie” or “Long Chain Charlie” depending on the length of their sentence.

In the days before I-81, Main Street through Abingdon was the main avenue through the area.  At that time the Post Office was located on the corner of Main and Cummings and Depot Square was located at the current Post Office location. Saturday nights were an active time in Abingdon and on nice evenings the square was filled with residents. 

A preacher thought that the Square would be a great place to give his message to the people. In time, his preaching became a main attraction and people filled the Square to hear him talk.  The crowded Square soon spilled out into the street and generated traffic problems.  The police were asked to come and correct the situation; they asked the preacher if he would move to another location.   After numerous requests by the police and an equal amount of refusals by the preacher, the police arrested the him and marched him down to the Jail.  The procession to the jail soon became a protest march as the locals followed the police all the way to the jail while loudly expressing support for the preacher and disdain for the police!

Occasionally the jail would have visitors who were down on their luck and just need a place to stay overnight and out of the cold. The jailor would accommodate these unfortunate visitors with a stay in the jail and a hot meal!

 Written by Stevan Demase 

 Bill Eskridge, one of Abingdon’s local attorneys, lived in the Washington County Jail from about 1945 to 1951 and has shared this history with us.

Bill’s father was the jailor during that time and he lived there with his mother, father, his two brothers, and his sister.  They all lived on one side of the jail while the prisoners were on the other side. A brick wall and a solid steel door fitted with a serious lock separated the family from the prison. The door was located on the first floor that is now at the top of the two steps leading into the showrooms on the Court Street side of the building. 

The Family Quarters

The two rooms on the Court Street side of the building were the Master Bedroom and the Living Room, which was apparently seldom used. The Master Bedroom had a door leading out of the room onto an open porch and then into another building which housed the kitchen and the family dining room. A separate kitchen was later built for the jail since Mrs. Eskridge did not like sharing her kitchen with the jail! This building is no longer standing.

Upstairs on the house side were two bedrooms. The one on the right (facing Park Street) was the sister’s room and on the left was a bedroom shared by the three brothers.

The Jail

You entered the jail from the door on Park Street where there was a small office to the left, just big enough to house a small desk, a phone, and possibly a teletype machine.  In front of the office was a booking area where the prisoners were registered and put into “Holding” until they could be assigned a cell. Depending upon their sex and their crime they were ushered to different sections of the jail.

The jail was actually a three story building with jail cells on the top two floors.  The cells were accessed by a wire enclosed catwalk that ran along the front of the building.  If you look at today’s building you will notice that there is a filled-in section above each window. These widows at one time spanned the two upper floors!  When the building was remodeled, the upper floor portion of the window was closed in, giving us today’s look.

On the ground floor were two rooms to the left of the check-in counter. These rooms served as the “Drunk Tank” and “Female Detention”.  The Drunk Tank (the room facing Park Street), housed the drunks.  On the opposite side were two caged cells that held the women detainees. 

The early cells were typically made from vertical steel bars with a lock and a slot for passing a food plate through.  The cells originally did not have a slot to pass a tray. The food was put into a narrow rectangular steel box, similar to a Velveeta Cheese box, that would be passed through the bars.  This did not lend itself to an appetizing meal!!  Sometime after Sherriff Eskridge came onboard the prison board decided to do something about the food service. Eventually, a contract was let and ironworkers came in and cut slots into the cells so a plate could pass through.