Poor conditions at Pettis County Jail in 1922

Rhonda Chalfant - Contributing Columnist

Rhonda Chalfant

Contributing Columnist


The Pettis County Jail, located on South Lamine Avenue, had been criticized as being easy to escape and in poor condition almost since its construction. Grand Juries at the turn of the century repeatedly condemned the jail and requested the county either repair the building, or better yet, build a new jail.

In 1922, yet another report on the jail’s condition was made. W.L. Miller, supervisor of jails and almhouses for the Missouri Board of Charities and Corrections, examined the jail, accompanied by the Pettis County Sheriff, in January 1922. He found several problems.

In April, Miller returned and inspected the jail again. Once again, he found several problems. He presented a report to his boss, Homer Talbot, Secretary of State for Charities and Corrections. Talbott wrote to the Pettis County Court (now county commission) with Miller’s findings.

Miller found 23 prisoners at the jail in April. Not quite half of them were county prisoners; the others were being held on state charges. Miller does not identify whether any of the prisoners were female, but noted the jail did not have adequate facilities to separate the men from the women. Black and white prisoners were kept segregated.

Miller noted the lack of cleanliness in most of the jail, with paper and other refuse on the floor that was being picked up at the time of the inspection. Miller noted the prisoners were to keep their own cells clean, to sweep them daily, and to mop the floors weekly. Miller also noted the broom used by the prisoners was too worn to be useful.

Another even more unpleasant problem with sanitation was discovered. The prisoners were being housed on the second floor of the jail, and the floors of the cells formed the ceiling of the lower floor’s cells. At the corners of the cells were holes that opened onto the lower floor’s cells. The prisoners were ignoring the toilet stools in the cells and were using the holes in the floor as urinals. Miller remarked that the prisoners’ behavior “is responsible for a bad odor and a very unsanitary condition.”

Miller blamed the prisoners’ attitude for the lack of cleanliness and sanitation. He described the area around the bathtubs, which was splashed with waste water and “was unsightly if nor actually unsanitary.”

Despite the faulty cleaning equipment, the three cells occupied by the black prisoners were neat and “very clean,” indicating they took pains to insure their surroundings were tidy. The cells occupied by other prisoners were dirty, suggesting a lack of concern for their surroundings.

Interestingly enough, the beds were “reasonably clean and free from vermin.”

In January, Talbot made several suggestions for improvement. Some of these were being implemented in April when Miller visited again, but not enough had been done to improve the conditions at the jail.

Next week’s column details the recommendations made in January, the progress in improvement, and the recommendations made in April.

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

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