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Flashback: History of safety and security behind bars

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SEATTLE METROPOLITAN POLICE MUSEUM – “In this ‘Flashback’ we’re talking about jails. Most of today’s jails are modern facilities that allow guards to monitor multiple prisoners and focus on inmate and staff safety with all the modern conveniences that technology has to offer, but it hasn`t always been that way. Over the past 150 years the old jails that warehoused prisoners were basic in their function and design and had a multitude of safety issues and design flaws that put both guards and prisoners in danger. The old original jails were all made of wood. This included wooden ceilings, floors, walls and doors. The main problem with this is the jail guards could not see inside the cells to see what the prisoners were doing. Often times the prisoners would also try to hang themselves by tying bed sheets around the bars. The worst thing about it is the prisoners could kick these doors down and escape.”

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“After abandoning the wooden cells, steel cells were designed. This added security but it also created problems. Prisoners could beat their head against these bars. They could reach through the bars and grab the guard`s keys or weapons. They could also hang themselves like with the old wooden cells. One way that jail administrators alleviated the problems with prisoners trying to hurt themselves was the invention of padded cells. Padded cells were basically a jail cell with four inches of horsehair padding surrounding the bars to keep prisoners from beating their heads. The problem with this was the prisoners would often ignite these pads causing asphyxiation or burning the jail down. This practice was soon abandoned by the 1980`s.”

“Prisoners escaping from prison or jail is nothing new. It`s happened back in the old days and continues to this day. Now, we`ve all seen the movies that show a mother or girlfriend visiting a prisoner in jail and smuggling a hacksaw blade inside a freshly baked cake. Well, that usually didn`t work. The reality is there`s actually two bars here. The exterior bar and the bar inside this which is free floating. The problem with this is when the prisoner starts cutting through the exterior bar, the interior bar floats in the same direction as the file or the saw, making it virtually impossible to cut through.”

“In the 1980`s the state of Washington began mandating new jail designs and addressing overcrowding problems. Today`s jails no longer have bars and instead use steel doors, cinder block walls and shatter proof glass for better inmate observation and to keep criminals safe and secure in jail where they belong.”

“That`s the way it was. I`m Officer Jim Ritter and this is `Flashback.'”

If you have questions about law enforcement history, email Ofc. Ritter at smpmuseum@aol.com

To find out more about the museum, go to seametropolicemuseum.org

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