Missouri's oldest operating jail to shed 'dungeon' image with $2M overhaul

A federal grant worth $1 million in conjunction with Iron County's $1 million investment will help fund renovation of the jail, which dates back to 1867

By Jack Suntrup
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — With thick limestone walls and a lack of sunlight, some have called the old Iron County jail a dungeon. Now a makeover is in store.

The county's jail complex in Ironton, Missouri, which dates to 1867, is in line for $2 million in renovations, with half of the money coming from the federal government and half from the county.

The facility is in bad shape. The old limestone keeps it cold in the winter and hot in the summer. A decade ago, federal officials blasted its lack of modern conveniences, from air conditioning to fire sprinklers to security windows for guards.


"It's just a bad situation for everybody," Iron County Presiding Commissioner Jim Scaggs said in an interview. "This is a good opportunity. We've been waiting for this for quite some time."

Iron County, two hours south of St. Louis, with about 9,400 residents, is one of the biggest winners in a new round of federal funding, this time through the American Rescue Plan Act. The Missouri Department of Public Safety is sending $10 million to more than 40 counties for local jail improvements. Only the city of St. Louis, which is getting $1.1 million, and Saline County, with $1.8 million, have secured more than Iron County.

The jail there has needed help for years. More than a decade ago, former Iron County Sheriff Roger Medley invited a federal assessment of the complex, made up of the historic sheriff's house, the original 1867 jail and an addition built in 1978. The feds found a lack of "daylight, temperature control, smoke detection, sprinklers, unobstructed exit paths, handicap accessibility and visibility into cells," the Post-Dispatch reported in 2012.

The article described six cells in the original quarters with woven steel doors left open due to security concerns.

In 2014, with walls of limestone that heat like a kiln in summer, Medley said he was closing off access to the old wing when the temperature hit 90 degrees. In 2017, prosecutors moved out of the old sheriff's house, which abuts the jail, after bats fell from the ceiling.

Scaggs said he hopes the updates will start in May, with renovations of the old sheriff's house, which housed the sheriff until the early 1990s and was originally constructed in 1866 and 1867.

He said administrative offices will move into the sheriff's house from the 1978 building. Improvements outlined in the first phase include new electric, plumbing, HVAC with UV sanitation, doors, windows, roof, flooring and ramps to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The second phase includes upgrades for the 1978 addition, including the conversion of offices into "modern-day" holding cells. A news release said upgrades during that phase include new roofing and updated plumbing and HVAC.

For the third phase, Scaggs said, "We're going to take the Civil War jail, the 1867 jail, and completely redo it on the inside." The grant can't be used for new construction, he said.

The six cells in the old wing will be removed and replaced with two larger group cells on either side of a central corridor, according to a news release. Modern plumbing and bathroom facilities will be installed, along with new cell doors, and new electric, lighting and roof, the release said.

Scaggs said he expects the project to last 12 to 18 months.

Inmates have already been removed: Last month, current Iron County Sheriff Jeff Burkett was arrested and charged with criminal street gang activity, along with two sheriff's deputies. Inmates were moved to the Washington County jail, and Iron County Coroner Tim Harbison took over as temporary sheriff.

St. Louis upgrades

Monte Chambers, spokesman for the St. Louis Department of Public Safety, said the city has been working to upgrade the City Justice Center, downtown, after "decades of neglect." The goal is to consolidate populations at the much-maligned city workhouse, on Hall Street, with inmates downtown, Chambers said.

He said in an email the city's Division of Corrections applied for the grant, and that the $1.1 million "will help support further renovations and upgrades."

In 2021, then-Public Safety Director Dan Isom told a citizen advisory panel that the City Justice Center could need as much as $20 million in renovations, including fixes for faulty cell locks.

City officials said in May that $7 million in upgrades, including faulty lock replacement, had been completed.

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