Prison Life

When the prison was originally designed, each inmate was to have his/her own cell with a fireplace and a narrow, unglazed window placed above eye level. The rules of the jail directed that prisoners were to be bathed, deloused, and have their clothing fumigated, and that each cell should have a bible or prayer book “to improve the soul.” Individual cells, intended for felons or criminals, were arranged in sets of four, opening off a short hall at each end of the building. These blocks of cells were to house separate groups, e.g. habitual criminals, first offenders, or women.

The larger rooms on the main hallways were to accommodate the debtors, imprisoned for owing money. These were common rooms, sometimes holding three or four men at a time, although there are some records that indicate that up to 30 debtors were housed at one time in the jail. During the day, debtors were to be allowed to move about the jail, working at various cleaning chores or employed in the basement workshop.

The “dungeon” or maximum-security cell, was in the center of the top floor. That location was carefully chosen to prevent escape by digging, to minimize communication with criminals in the cell blocks, and to ensure constant surveillance by guards making rounds. This was the only cell without a fireplace. It is flanked by niches for guards or visitors and has one very high, very small window and an iron ring in the center of the floor to which the prisoner could be chained. As one might expect, tradition states that this cell is haunted. Supposedly, the ghost of Joel Clough, a murderer who spent his last night there, has paid tribute to his last earthly residence and to the vigilance of the prison guards in later years.

Until 1888, the jail keeper and his wife and family lived in two rooms on the first floor of the jail. The Keeper’s wife was expected to supervise the female inmates and the Keeper was to execute the “Rules of the Jail” as devised by the Prison Board, which was composed of members of the freeholders. The Keeper and his family lived in these quarters until the adjacent brick house, connected by a passageway, was constructed on the corner of Grant and High Streets.

In keeping with the intent designed into the structure, the basement level contained workshops where prisoners were expected to learn some useful trade, such as how to make brooms, baskets, or shingles. The concept didn’t work, given the short time most inmates spent in the jail, and over time, the workshops became used as minimum security cells. Another, less supervised pastime of the inmates that endured through the ages was prisoner graffiti. Depicting humor, despair, and a belated piety, several fine examples of this art have been photo-conserved and are on display throughout the building. The felons’ eating room, also in the basement, permitted controlled access to the exercise yard with its twenty-foot wall. Outside, prisoners could tend a small garden of fresh vegetables. In one corner of the yard, an area was set aside for the gallows, which were dismantled and stored between hangings.

Staple foods, linens, cleaning supplies, and craft materials were stored in the basement near the kitchen, baking, and washing facilities. Once a day, the prisoners were to be served a main meal of meat and vegetables. The other two meals were usually cooked cereals or grains. They had milk and cider to drink, as well as water. One of the inmates was made chief cook, preparing all prison meals, and that inmate slept in a basement cell next to the kitchen. Large washtubs were provided for laundry and regular baths for the prisoners.

As formidable as the prison seems, it was not escape-proof. The walls were scaled and the roof penetrated numerous times in its history. The preferred routes to freedom seem to have been through the roof of the jail , and along the yard wall or the roof of the passageway to a place of descent. One notable escape occurred in 1875. Four inmates punched a hole through the ceiling of an upper corridor cell to gain access to the roof, went down the sloping front wall and down around the woodpile beside the prison yard gate. A fifth accomplice, too large to fit through the hole and incensed at being left behind, reportedly sounded the alarm. Despite a quick response by the warden, it seems that at least some of these escapees were never caught.

Some criminals were destined to spend their last days on earth in the Burlington County Jail. State law mandated that criminals convicted of a capital crime were to be executed in the County in which they were found guilty, and Burlington County was no exception. Several public hangings were conducted in the prison yard on a gallows erected for each occasion. The last such execution was the double hanging of Rufus Johnson and George Small. The two men were convicted of murdering Florence Allinson of Moorestown, an English-born governess at a refuge for homeless children. Solved within days by the celebrated Burlington County detective Ellis H. Parker, the men were hanged on March 24, 1906, two months after the crime.

Solidly built, this prison was in constant use until November 1965. Originally designed to house approximately 40 prisoners, the Burlington County Prison held over 100 inmates when they were moved to a converted armory that formerly stood behind the jail. Overcrowded conditions required yet another, larger prison which was erected in 1983.