Every summer for as long as I've been at least somewhat aware of what's happening in the community around me, the local prisoner population has pushed the limits of jailhouse capacity and usually spills over.

Every summer for as long as I've been at least somewhat aware of what's happening in the community around me, the local prisoner population has pushed the limits of jailhouse capacity and usually spills over.

People just seem to get ticked off more easily in the summertime, especially when alcohol is involved (and, of course, it flows pretty freely in the warmer months), and, if they're not careful they may quickly find themselves handcuffed in the backseat of a patrol vehicle.

But while some guy in an orange jumpsuit may grumble about having to sleep on a thin mattress on the bare cement cell floor, I can guarantee him he's living in the lap of luxury compared to what prisoners in Newton County once endured.

Before the present jail was built on Neosho's Coler Street in 1995, arrestees were caged on the top floor of the county courthouse, which had functioned as the county lock-up since 1937. Before that, beginning in 1887, the jail was a one-story brick structure attached to the backside of the sheriff's house at 121 N. Washington St. (now home, of course, to the Newton County Historical Park and Museum). While conditions at that place may not have necessarily qualified the jail for any humanity awards, it seems to have been relatively respectable and I haven't run across any condemning editorials or other historical accounts of bad conditions for prisoners.

The same cannot be said for its predecessor.

Located at 212 S. Washington, was the second, and most notorious, Newton County Jail.

Although the first jail, built in 1840 near what is now 214 Patterson St., was a cramped and crude log structure, the next "modern" jail, built in 1860, was worse by all standards.

For one, the prisoners were kept in what was basically a 12 X 18 foot iron box, partitioned off into six cells. The top, bottom and all sides of the prisoner area was plate iron, which had the effect of converting the cell block into a giant oven in the summertime and into an icebox in the winter.

There were no windows. The only light came in through the iron grate door of the "box." In 1871, a local grand jury compared the Newton County Jail to "the Black Hole of Calcutta" and urged the place be renovated "as an act of humanity to prevent (prisoners) from being tortured…" The same jury also labeled the jail "filthy" and "badly ventilated."
That "badly ventilated" part is significant, as the cesspool, or open septic tank, was located right outside the wall. Running directly under the inmates' feet, a four-inch pipe connected the cast iron enamel toilet seats conveniently located in each cell to the steaming lagoon outside. Can you imagine the stench the prisoners lived with inside that closed up iron box?

One guy who escaped the dungeon but was recaptured after catching a load of buckshot in his shoulder told the local newspaper that he would "rather be shot once a week than be compelled to sit in his suffocating cell which is constantly steaming and full of foul air."

On top of all that, the food at times was so bad that even hungry tough guys wouldn't eat it. When it got down to spoiled meat and moldy bread, even the deputies took pity sometimes, with one lawman buying food from a local restaurant out of his own pocket on at least one occasion rather than feed the inmates what the county was offering.

Oh, and did I mention that there appears to have been no separate accommodations for female prisoners? I would like to believe, however, that SOME sort of separate living arrangement was made for the incarcerated ladies.

Eventually, loud public outcry put enough pressure on the county to build a new jail, the aforementioned third, at 121 N. Washington (this one with segregated female cells). Newton County's "Black Hole" was eventually torn down and a cigar factory later put up in its place.

So if for whatever reason you find yourself behind bars under Newton County's watchful care, know that you're living like a king compared to what guys before you went through.

Wes Franklin serves on the board of directors of the Newton County Historical Society. He is also public relations/events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Call him at 658-8443.