Posted by: Josh Hinkle | June 13, 2009

Hotter Than Jail

Blanco County Jail - Johnson City, TX

Blanco County Jail - Johnson City, TX

When people ask me why I moved to Texas from Iowa, I usually respond with something typical. The job. To be closer to family. In reality, I remember those harsh, Iowa winters. 70 inches of snow can be beautiful. When it buries your car every morning or you have to stand outside for a half hour preparing for a live shot on the six o’clock news, that’s a different story.

In Iowa, I refrained from giving that answer too often, because the natives seem to love the cold. And in Texas, when I reply with “the weather,” the other person usually says, “Just wait until August.” While I am enjoying the slow rise to what’s described as “a real scorcher,” I can’t help but wonder what I will think in a few months.

IMG_0540Standing outside the Blanco County Jail, I soaked up the mild morning. As I waited for the sheriff, the heat began pressing down with mid-9os in the forecast. The old limestone building sat on the corner across the street from the courthouse in Johnson City. It was plain but impressive, surrounded by the chain link fence topped with coils of barbed wire. The two-story structure itself had bars covering the windows and doors. On the side near the top, there was an old rusted replica of the sheriff’s badge. As I stared at the emblem, I heard a voice hehind me.

“Would you believe there’s no central air in there?” Sheriff Bill Elsbury cross the street and shook my hand. There was indeed no air conditioning or heat in the jail. “When you go to jail, you go to jail,” he laughed, raising his eyebrows in a way that seemed to say, “Stay out of trouble.” My interview with Elsbury for the KXAN story concerned the future of the jail, a future that hinged on its history.

Texas Historical Commission marker

Texas Historical Commission marker

The Blanco County Jail is the second oldest in operation in Texas, built in 1894. It actually ties for fourth with a few other counties in terms of when it was built. But only San Saba County has an older jail still in use, built ten years before the site in Johnson City. Three years after Blanco County’s seven-bed structure opened, inmates staged a jailbreak. However, to this day, the jail is still in use.

“To serve a county for this long,” Elsbury mentioned, “she’s definitely paid her way.” It just wasn’t enough anymore. Like so many other central Texas counties, Blanco has a problem with prisoner overcrowding. The sheriff averages 12 a day, and the extra who won’t fit into the jail go elsewhere. The county pays to house them in other counties’ jails. It’s no surprise that plans are now underway to build a new 48-bed facility in Johnson City, which will meet the minumum Texas standard and allow the county an additional revenue source by charging rent for outside prisoners.

IMG_0544When the old jail closes in two years, the county hopes to transform it into a museum. Ideas for jail and past sheriffs exhibits are taking shape. Sheriff Elsbury’s face would be one of those on display inside the steamy cell blocks. If he has his way, he would also like to prevent the installation of an air conditioner even then.

“If people want to see what this jail was really like, they need to experience it like it really was.” When I asked him if he would give tours himself in that heat, he laughed at me before walking back to his office down the street. As I packed up my gear, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and thought about touring the facility in front of me in the future. Then “just wait until August” rolled through my mind. A summer tour would be out of the question.

(Read the jail’s Texas Historical Commission marker on the FlipCam video below.)



  1. Love the title…GREAT story!

  2. Thanks! Glad you liked it!

  3. Hi Josh, came across your blog on Twitter, it’s a fun read! I moved from Minnesota, myself, a year ago. I know exactly what you’re talking about, moving for the job, but the weather is a perk! Minnesotans would say “you’ll miss it, and it’s hot there, you know.” Texans would say “it’s hot here, you know.” While the heat of summers can be as gripping as the cold of winters, many have lived here for a long time, I think you can do it too. Don’t let them scare you, they just want to seem tough! Anyway, a good read and well written, thanks for the fun blog posts.

  4. Thanks, Julie! I really like Texas so far. Hope you do, too!

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