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Thursday, May 18, 2017

My 24 Hours In The Rockingham County Jail

The old jail, housing some 70 people, met our community's
needs until 1995, when a new one designed for 225 was built
on Liberty Street. That one now houses some 350 inmates,
with over 100 more men and women at the Middle River Jail.
(photo courtesy Rockingham Sheriff''s Department)
Yes, back in 1964 I spent some time behind bars at the old Rockingham County Jail on 60 Graham Street (now the parking area for the Court Square Theater).
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Fortunately, it was a short sentence of only 24-hours, and it was one I voluntarily chose as a senior at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU).

In my last two years in college I visited the jail regularly, along with some fellow students involved in a ministry to the 60-70 men and women housed there. We enjoyed developing whatever good relationships possible given the limitation of having to communicate through a narrow opening in the steel doors and bars separating us from those inside.

In the interest of getting a little better feel of what it was like to live in a steel and concrete cage, I asked then sheriff A. L. Strawderman for permission to spend a part of a weekend there. After taking some time to think it over he graciously agreed.

Thus on a Saturday afternoon I was given a faded and ill fitting jail outfit to wear and locked in with about a dozen other men in a cell designed for sixteen. Most of them were not strangers to me, since we were already acquainted through our weekly visits.

A few men in my cell were newcomers, however, and suspected I was some kind of stool pigeon out to get some information regarding someone's case. I became aware of this in the middle of the night when I overheard them discussing their strange visitor, thinking I was sound asleep on the thin mattress between me and a steel upper bunk attached to the wall. Fortunately, some who knew me came to my defense, insisting I was someone they could trust.

Overall, aside from the hard bed and the less than stellar food, it really wasn't a terrible experience. I even learned to play chess there, and one of the inmates insisted on giving me his own simply carved set of chess pieces he had gotten in Germany while in the service, a memory I have always treasured.

I realized from the first, of course, that there was no way I could really experience anything of what my friends inside were dealing with. I knew I was getting out within a day, and that there would be no stigma attached to my having spent a night behind bars.

But the experience did make a big impact on my life, adding to a lifelong interest in prisons and in criminal justice issues, in the spirit of the text, "Remember those in prison as though you were in bonds with them, and those who are afflicted as though your yourself were suffering."
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