Most small towns in America's Old West had a facility with two or three cells to hold an occasional horse thief, or perhaps someone who'd had a little too much to drink. They were often run by a husband and wife, who lived in quarters behind the jail. Not many of these Mom-and-Pop Jails exist anymore and soon there will be one less, as Erika Celeste reports from the tiny county of Wirt, West Virginia.
Rural Wirt County is home to only about 6,000 people. On a warm summer's afternoon you can find folks in Elizabeth, the county seat, sitting on their front porch swings. Church bells still chime the hour. Ten cars on Main street are considered heavy traffic.
Folks keep to themselves. Most would rather not talk about losing one of their county's biggest sources of revenue, the old mom and pop jail. But James Roberts, who owns Elizabeth's general store, across from the jail, is upset by the thought of losing such an integral part of his town. "As for preserving it," he said, "one hundred years from now people aren't going to be saying 'Oh, I remember my grandfather talking about the Wirt County Jail.' I don't think it'll be here."
The century-old red brick jail is closing because the county can't afford to maintain the Victorian building. But when the doors are locked for the last time, more than just a jail will close. It will mark the end of an era for the town. Head Jailer Sandy Weekly says it's like losing family. She said, "A lot of the guys that come in are children of people I grew up with, so you get real close to 'em. They're more to me like kids. You can't treat them like that, but we do try to treat them like they're human beings."
Most of the inmates brought in are between 18 and 25 years old. The Wirt Jail is usually home to about 20 inmates. About half are local men arrested for drunk driving and other misdemeanors, the other half are women. Most of them are from neighboring Wood County, which doesn't have a female facility.
From the outside, the Wirt County Jail looks like a large two-story house. You get that impression from the inside, too, until you see the occasional set of bars which separate inmates into four bed cells. Life is slow. The inmates sleep, watch TV, and play cards. Their excitement for the day comes when they get the mail, or when they go outside for a half-hour.
Sandy Weekly said, "Some that have been in the regional jails are tellin' the others, you better appreciate what you have now, cause it gets a whole lot worse than this."
Ms. Weekly and her teenage daughter make breakfast, lunch and dinner for the inmates. But she says home cooked meals aren't the only difference at the jail. "We let their families bring things to them," she said, "as long as its things we can look through. We let them bring their cigarettes. We also furnish their shampoo and toiletries. The others don't do that."
That has an impact, according to Sheriff Andrew Chevront. He says that while inmates should be punished for their crimes, treating them like more than just a number or moneymaker makes all the difference in the world. He said, "It gives them a chance to find out that someone does care what happens to them, other then just family. Someone in the system actually cares. I think it has an impact on whether they do wrong again."
The Wirt County Jail may be the preferred alternative for inmates, but Sheriff Chevront says there are plenty of reasons law-abiding citizens will miss it too. He said, "Probably a lot of people don't care if its here or not, but they don't understand the revenue it has created over the years. Housing the next county's females is a large part of the budget for the county."
Also, the sheriff says no local jail will mean less law enforcement. He currently has a two-man crew. If there are two arrestable crimes an hour apart, both officers will have to make the four hour round trip to the regional jail in Dodge Ridge County. That would leave Wirt County unprotected.
Hard as it is to accept, the Sheriff and the jailer have been told there are no alternatives. Sandy Weekly has another job, but says it still hurts to know the jail is closing. "It bothers me cause it's part of our town," she said. "I think this is just the beginning of our town ending."
Sheriff Chevront isn't ready to believe that. "It may take 2 or 3 years to rebound, but we will," he said. "We're here to stay. We have a lot of history, tradition, family values and morals. In the long run we'll make it."