The Old Jail, 300 E. Bay
I guess by now, everyone knows I like to write my thoughts down and share my stories on Facebook. Not exactly the right format; I haven’t learned to indent, and anything over 800 words gets cut off, unless you post and start over in another comment. So be it.
I never could stand up in front of people and speak my thoughts. The written word was always easier. I probably don’t have enough education to be good at it, but sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.
I worked for HUD after our first son, Michael was born. Hah! A whopping $620 a month. I supplemented my income by going to Florida Jr. College under the G.I. Bill. That paid an extra $450.00 a month going full time. I went to class four nights a week and on Saturdays.
All work, no play. I studied English 101, English 102, English 105, and Journalism 101 and 102. So I guess you could say, I knew I wanted to write. I just didn’t have much to write about. How do you get a job being a writer when you need to get paid every Friday to support your family, especially when you don’t have much to write about.
I transferred over to the Sheriff’s Office after Jim Sheppard won that big Federal Lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville for the prisoners at the County Jail. That paid $850 per month, medical benefits, vacation, and holidays. I finally got a little breathing room.
I was excited about my new job working as a correctional officer. It was an inside job with air conditioning and to me, a little prestige. The pay raise meant I didn’t have to go to school 5 days a week to make ends meet.
Under Court order, the City of Jacksonville needed to hire around 200 Corrections Officers to meet Federal standards. I had been studying to be a court’s clerk and was already familiar with the terminology, schedules, and the best place to park. The job with the Sheriff’s Office opened up first.
It was “on the job training” from the get go. I had made such a high score on the written test that I had to take it again so they could be sure I didn’t cheat. So many of the new “hires” couldn’t pass the test, after 30 days, they had to go back and re-score the failed applicants on the “curve,” so that the City could be in compliance with a Federal Court Order.
As I roamed the “Catwalks,” I heard stories that the inmates would tell each other to pass the time. I started carrying a pocket notebook to write them down. To pass the time, I sometimes would read back to them what I wrote.
I worked at the “Old Jail.” No, not the one on 711 Liberty St., the one on 300 E. Bay St., by the St. Johns River. I watched that movie last night, “12 Years a Slave,”and for some God awful reason it brought back the memories from my time there.
Those cells were small, tiny and inhumane. Eight man cells were around 12′ by 12′. The 12 man cells and 16 man cells were super cramped for that many men. Not everybody deserved to be there, no, not everybody. Some guys may have been innocent, but a lot were just plain sick. I mean, they should have been in a hospital or a ward somewhere else.
The flood gates are opening up on my memories, y’all. You might want to pop some popcorn….. The guys that worked at the jail were all sorts, about like anywhere else I suppose, but a sense of power comes and gives most guys “Wanna be Cop Syndrome,” I think.
Every move you make, you need to be careful. Some guy facing 30 years or life hasn’t got anything to lose, so he might as well take you with him. That’s always in the back of your head, so you have to be ready. I meanready. Don’t blink.
Most of the time it isn’t a big, mean-looking, tough guy; it’s usually the one you least suspect that will turn on you when your guard’s down and take his frustrations out on you. My work mates would carry big flashlights or a night stick. A lot of them wore holsters, whether they carried a gun or not, off duty. They would carry the keys to the cells in their holster, like it was a status symbol. Me, I had a notebook.
There were five floors at the old jail, counting the mezzanine. The nurse’s duty station, women’s and juveniles’ cells were on the “Mezz”. Each floor had a desk sergeant and four officers who walked the floor. Each Officer would walk a wing, four big cells, and 3 confinement cells on each wing. Downstairs on the first floor was the booking and releasing desk, the kitchen and galley for the officers, and the Captain’s Office. Our Captain was James McMillen. He was a Lieutenant in the Police Department. He ran for Sheriff later on.
The back door is where the new prisoners were brought in. When a man hears those iron bars slam behind him (sometimes for good), there’s no telling just how he’s gonna react. That’s why the “Goon Squad” hangs out around the back door. These guys are ready at any moment to react to the “call of the wild.” If there is trouble upstairs, they all hit the elevator and shoot up as fast as they can. We weren’t supposed to take anyone head on. It was “stall,” until the Goon Squad shows up.
I was working the back door the night the Sailmaker restaurant was robbed. Officer Michael Stewart was killed, and his partner, Jim English was shot in the chest. I knew those guys. I saw them every day. Hell, it wasn’t right. The culprit, James Raulerson, was brought in with a gunshot wound to the chest, his cousin Jerry Tant had been killed. This was before they carried injured prisoners to University Hospital first. The nurses met us at the door and rendered emergency care to save his worthless life.
Raulerson shot Mike Stewart 5 times, for around $3,000.00. I remember hearing him brag that he would have gotten away with it, if he hadn’t stopped to bang the waitress in the office, while his cousin Jerry held the others hostage. Blood was everywhere. My wife freaked when I went home with blood all over my pants legs.
Friday nights with a full moon were the worst. Back in those days, it seemed to me that almost every crime was alcohol related. When people get drunk, they do stupid things. I got to see a lot of my friends from the street come and go, people I grew up with, people I went to school with, even other officers that I worked with. James, (I don’t want to mention his last name) a good friend, came in charged with murder, for the second time. He had killed a man with an axe handle, but it was reduced to manslaughter because the other guy had a gun. But I felt so helpless when these times occurred. I wanted to try to help my friend, but what could I do? I did make sure they got plenty of phone time and extra food trays when I could.
Leroy Yarbrough. Everybody remembers Leroy. Five or six years before, he had come in second at the Daytona 500, almost a photo finish with Cale Yarborough winning by a fender. He tried to kill his mother. My brother-in-law, Bug, had introduced me to Leroy years before at the Jacksonville Speedway. He was an alright guy back then, but alcohol had riddled his brain. Bug told me it was from drinking moonshine. He had lost his prestige, heck he had lost everything. When his mom tried to have him committed, he tried to choke the life out of her.
Leroy was crazy, bed bug crazy. I tried to talk to him, offer him what comfort I could, but it didn’t do much good. He would bang his head up against the steel walls screaming for a “RIP, (Rest in Peace).” A RIP was a cigarette made by the inmates at Raiford prison for indigent inmates to smoke. I don’t think they make them anymore, but I knew where there was a stash and would smuggle him a pack now and again. I wouldn’t let him use the lighter though, I did the lighting.
One night, one of the trustees smuggled a juvenile a pack of smokes and gave him the lighter, back in isolation. Isolation cells are secluded, way in the back, and don’t get much traffic. This kid set fire to his mattress, and we had to evacuate the entire jail population, right on the St. Johns waterfront. The juvenile died of smoke inhalation.
Trustees were usually the guys that did the smuggling. Visitors would bring in stuff and put it under the garbage can or tape it to the lid of the garbage can or under the shelf of the visitors’ little window. Once while I was there, someone brought in a set of clothes and put them in the garbage can. The trustee put the clothes on and walked out with the visitors when visitation was over.
I witnessed a trustee that had hid under the elevator, and when no one was looking, while the elevator was rising, he forced the doors open and ran out of the back door. A couple of us who rode to work together were walking up the stairway, ready for shift change, when we saw this guy bolting out of the gate. We all recognized him as the trustee who worked upstairs and knew he was bolting. Bad mistake. The Goon Squad had a field day with him.
I will admit that I did smuggle Ole Leroy in some bourbon in a small mouthwash container, once or twice. About two good slugs in the bottle and he was almost normal again. He looked so pitiful banging his head up against the wall.
I got to see these guys who were called “BLA,” or Black Liberation Army. They had tried to rob a bank and there was a big shoot out. They always got a full commissary, every day. Lots of people sent them money, mail and came to visit.
I read Randolph Pendleton’s articles in class about these guys. He was an editorial writer for theJacksonville Journalback then. They were dangerous. Step lightly around these fellas. They were all martial arts experts. They had plenty of snacks, took all of the phone time they wanted, and even had their own sissies in the cell.
When it came time to take these guys to court, it was “All Hands on Deck.” Being young and agile, I was the one sent in to the cell to put the cuffs on them before we escorted them to court. They didn’t like the cuffs. No way, and tried to put up a fight. I can still see the image of two guys standing on top of the steel picnic table in the day room lashing out with leg kicks and back swings at any one that got close. The Goon Squad was my back up. When one guy would kick at me from the front, two guys from the Goon Squad would tackle him from behind. Once these guys were hog tied, they pretty much acted like everybody else.
I don’t know if anyone remembers her or not, but one of the ladies who worked downstairs at the Releasing Desk got arrested for solicitation to murder. She hired one of the inmates to kill her husband. She did some finagling with his paperwork and he was accidentally released. Well, they got caught.
I had a good friend, Ron Schell, who hired on when I did. Ron was a skinny black guy who reminded me of a young “George Jefferson.” He was a small dude, but he didn’t take any crap. Just like George. He was about 140 lbs with a medium afro. We drove to work together; we even started a bowling league for correctional officers and off duty cops. Since we changed shifts every month, we got the bowling alley on the Arlington Expressway to accommodate us.
Ron developed sickle cell. We had Blue Cross Blue Shield with the City, but sickle cell wasn’t a recognized disease back then, and it wasn’t covered. He had to take a lot of sick days, more than we were allotted. The Sheriff’s Office fired him, but he got a lawyer and they had to give him back his job, as long as he lasted. He wanted to work, he loved his job. The bowling alley named a trophy after him, and the guys at work collected money for a scholarship for his young son. When he passed, I wept.
I got to see so many friends who I grew up with, I lost track. There was a long walkway that crossed over the street from the jail to the courthouse, and before you went into the courthouse, there was a holding cell. On the top of the ceiling, someone had burned with a lighter, “Wormy Bennett, been here some many times I can’t count.” I knew Wormy from the neighborhood. He is Charles Bennett’s brother. Every day I took guys to the court chute, I saw this sign. I hear Wormy gets out in 3 more years. I know the prison health care system isn’t anything to brag about, and I have been told that Wormy may not make it. I hope he does.
One day I was working the mezzanine between the 1st and 2nd floor, taking juveniles to the court chute and back. It was getting late in the day, the time when court should have been over. The other officers on my floor were taking turns to go downstairs to the galley to eat supper when I got a call on the radio to come up to the Mezz and bring a juvenile back from court. There was a rule,Do not escort juveniles alone. Always, there had to be at least two guys, mainly because they were unpredictable and sneaky.
This day, the guy I was escorting was a 16 year old black kid that was about 6’6 tall and weighed about 280 lbs. When I stopped to lock the doors behind me, he disappeared. I saw an open door that led to the back side of the cell blocks and the “catwalk,” a long hallway that officers used to keep an eye on the prisoners.
As soon as I turned the corner, I spotted him reaching through the bars and hollering at a bunch of his “homeboys.” He was hard to miss in his peach colored leisure suit. I got all over him for being in an unauthorized area, and he shoved me backwards, pretty hard as I remember. I saw stars when I banged my head. He picked me up by grabbing my shirt with both hands, lifting me off the ground, and then he slammed me up against the bars.
I reached down through the bars and grabbed a wooden handled broom, then I poked him up under the chin with it. He dropped me then. The broom stick was still part way sticking through the bars. I snapped it off and used it as a weapon, I think I hit him once or twice with it before he turned to run. That’s when I put my foot in his ass and shoved him to the ground. I put the handcuffs on him and escorted him back to his cell. I should have made an incident report, but I didn’t, mainly because I wasn’t supposed to escort a juvenile alone.
The next day I was called in to Lt. McMillen’s Office, and there was the juvenile with his Momma and her lawyer. The Captain wanted me, to tell my side of the story. I tried to downplay it, thinking it wasn’t really that big a deal, but he was a juvenile, I did put my hands on him, and I didn’t write a report on it. Then the Captain had the kid turn around and bend over and there was my dirty shoe print on the seat of his pants.
I was still on probation, the Lieutenant told me I could resign or get fired. I had been with the City for almost 3 years, and I didn’t think he could fire me that easily, but he did. I could have gone back to HUD where I worked originally, but I was sick of working for the City of Jacksonville and always being broke. I have never missed that job one bit. I started selling cars for Crown Ford. My days of scratching a “broke ass” and not having anything to write about were over.
I’ve been trying to write my stories ever since. This one took place almost 50 years ago. Leroy is gone now, so is James. Wormy got out and went back in a couple more times but that is a story in itself. The Old Jail is history, no one remembers how much of a cruel and inhumane place it was.
I still have my little notebook. I wrote about Ole Leroy, the juvenile that died in the fire, my buddy Art Schell and the camaraderie of the guys that worked with me. Times were tough back then but they have given me food for thought, that will last me the rest of my life.