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History of county jail spans decades, multiple buildings

By ERIC TICHY

Special to OBSERVER

MAYVILLE – “More walls. More bars. More guards.”

It’s not just a line from the under-appreciated prison flick, “The Shawshank Redemption.” Since opening in 1939, the modern-day Chautauqua County Jail has tripled in size. Maybe more.

The number of inmates has grown; the same goes for correction officers.

“Just walking around here you can see all the layers of jails that have been here,” said Chautauqua County Undersheriff Charles Holder.

He jokes, “You think they would try to match the colors of paint on the wall.”

A tour of the County Jail is an exercise of the mind. Multiple floors, various corridors and lots and lots of doors. All of them locked, by the way.

To accommodate a rising inmate population over the decades, the County Jail has expanded into a hodgepodge facility. There are buildings built around other buildings. Where an exterior wall once stood out in the elements now is enclosed by a large complex.

Inmates are brought into the jail through a secured garage-like area (sally port) and are quickly processed. Some post bail and never get comfortable, while others wait for court dates or serve short sentences.

The jail also can house federal inmates, as well as high-profile inmates from other counties.

“You never know who’s going to come through here,” Holder said.

At the moment, there are more than 275 inmates housed in the County Jail. Overlooking them are 64 full-time and 38 part-time correction officers; six sergeants, two lieutenants and one captain (also known as the warden) also are present.

Capt. James Crowell recently replaced Patrick Johnson as warden.

To keep tabs on the jail’s history, Sheriff Joe Gerace in 2005 appointed Walter Gunther as historian. Gunther has been a correction officer since 1995, and has amassed a wealth of knowledge – and photographs – of the County Jail.

“Just looking back and seeing all the sheriffs that have been here with these jails is fun to study,” Gunther said. “There have been a lot of interesting characters that have been here.”

The first County Jail was built in 1815 at a staggering price of $1,500. Prior to that, anyone arrested was shipped to a nearby state prison. A brick jail was built in 1835 for $5,000, while the third incarnation burned down in 1901.

The latest version was constructed in December 1939 at a cost of almost $240,000. A tunnel was created to connect the jail to the county courthouse across the street.

According to Holder, the jail’s newer additions are built like “Lego blocks” that can be stacked upon one another. The last addition came in 2007, he said.

“If we want to expand we just add another level,” he said. “It’s really neat.”

The most recent project, initially projected to cost $14.5 million in 2005, ended up with a $16 million price tag. In March 2007, inmates were allowed to move into half of addition, which allowed construction crews to begin work on the second half as well as renovations to the older part of the jail. A staffing dispute that trickled into 2008 kept parts of the addition unusable for a time until the entire jail became operational.

During a recent tour of the facility with the undersheriff, inmates keep to themselves. Echoing throughout many cells is “The Price is Right.” Only well-behaved inmates have the privilege of watching TV, Holder said.

Moving from one area of the jail to another is tricky. Some floors have keypads; other areas require permission from an officer located in the heart of the jail. In fact, at any given time, one officer is overlooking at least 100 cameras throughout the sprawling complex.

In the kitchen, several inmates are cleaning up after serving breakfast. As with the TVs, the jail’s best behaved get the opportunity to cook.

“It’s something they can use afterward,” Holder said of the knowledge gained while in the jail’s kitchen.

In another room, more than a dozen inmates sit across from loved ones during visiting hours. There are smiles and laughter. Some tears, too. Correction officers allow hugs during the visits, but they keep close watch to ensure drugs and other items aren’t being smuggled into the jail.

Elsewhere, inmates are seen playing cards, walking in circles and reading the newspaper. A select few even hand out meals. In most instances, inmates stop what they’re doing the moment someone walks in.

“They always know when you walk into a room,” Holder said. “Word gets around fast.”

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