Since the Burlington County Jail had no organized recreation or self-improvement programs, and poor lighting discouraged reading, inmates had to find their own ways of killing time. One built a model steam ship from available materials. Another wrote a folk song slandering the incumbent sheriff. Since inmates were allowed pencils, and large, relatively smooth wall surfaces were available when paper supplies wore out, many turned to drawing or writing. When the jail closed on November 23, 1965, the second story walls, last painted some ten years earlier, were covered with inmate-created graffiti.
Names, either of inmates or their girlfriends, appeared with frequency. Several inmates appeared in portraits, as did one or two (somewhat idealized?) girlfriends. Inmate Dan declared his affection for Kathy imaginatively and with considerable artistic skill.
Religious symbolism, including a large and well-drawn head of God, was prevalent, especially in the west cell block populated mostly by black inmates. Partial-year calendars which recorded time served were popular. Philosophical comments (“no more jail for me”), also appeared. Pornography was rare -- one suspects a little paint brush censorship by corrections staff -- but game scores and counts of pull-ups and sit-ups were frequent. Finally, one of a kind artwork, from a crude but strong profile of a Native American to a replica of the 1685 Holmes City plan of Philadelphia also appeared in some numbers.
After the jail opened as a museum in 1966, an occasional school kid (of course, no adult would do such a thing!) added a name or perhaps added a line or two to an existing sketch.
The paint on which this artwork was drawn – a sort of bilious beige, had been applied to an unprepared surface, and over the years, many coats had been applied. By the early 1990s, when the jail was closed for a new roof and new bathrooms, it was flaking badly. Since the construction promised to shake even more of it loose, the PMA contracted a local photographer to record the graffiti in colored slides. The work completed and the jail about to reopen, a health inspector went through, saw the paint flakes and dust on the floor, and realized it was lead paint which would require removal and proper disposition. An effort, only partially successful, was made to retain some of the more interesting graffiti, and any areas where the paint was still adhering well.