Vans Show Juveniles Prison Life

Kids Gin Sit In 'Hot Seat'


NEW HAVEN, Conn.-- "Stop that crime! You can't win!" In big black letters, topped by a row of iron-barred windows, these words are today touring the cities of the United States on two of J. Edward Slavin's "Jails on Wheels."

Sleek and well-kept, these jails are tailor-made motor vans which house all the equipment of a modern jail; sawed-off shot guns, handcuffs, revolvers, drunk-o-meters, radio set, and even an authentic electric chair and bucket-type cell.

The purpose of these jails is to demonstrate to the youth of America the folly of attempting to buck the law.

Slavin, who is a former sheriff of New Haven county Connecticut, is firm in his belief that, if a youngster sits in an electric chair and puts the leg irons around his calves and the steel cap on his head, he will never forget what the reward is for high achievement in the world of crime.

He believes that if a boy hears the cell door clang shut behind him, he will carry that feeling of confinement with him all the days of his youth. Young, impressionable children will remember, and, they will think twice before becoming first offenders.

The idea of Slavin's first began to grow roots while he was a Connecticut sheriff. Amazed at the large number of young fellows who monthly passed in and out of his institution, the former sheriff was on the job but a few weeks when he began to take steps which later led to his becoming a famed champion of wayward youngsters.

In the driver's seat as he was, Sheriff Slavin soon learned why these youngsters were in jail instead of school. They had no homes, or none to speak of. In most cases, their parents were dead or didn't get along with each other, or just didn't care what happened to their offspring.

"This," thought the sheriff, "is something the public should know about" So in the days that followed, Sheriff Slavin went through his jail interviewing the youngsters who were committed to his care

Most of them were still in the teen-age bracket, from 16 up. He got their stories, then with money of his own he arranged for a radio program which told the world why these boys were behind bars.

He called his program, "Stop the First Offender." He organized young people's clubs under this same title, publicized it in every way he could, and within one year" a national radio network picked up the idea and, paying all expenses, broadcast it over a nationwide hook-up for five years.

By now his office had become a child-problem center for hundreds of troubled parents. People came to him by the score for an answer to the question-- what to do with little Jim or Dick or Betty. He tried to help them all.

In one case, at the request of the parent, Sheriff Slavin actually put a boy behind the bars in an attempt to cure him of shoplifting. For years the boy's father had paid for the boy's thefts, had covered up for him in every way he could in the hope that the youngster would stop. However, the boy hadn't, so the father went to Sheriff Slavin for help.

The boy was over 16, and the father was willing; so Sheriff Slavin put him in jail overnight. He let him eat what the other prisoners ate, let him sleep on a hard straw mattress, kept him behind the steel bars, and then in the morning turned him loose. Today that boy is a Yale graduate and an enterprising young lawyer. It was this first success that gave the former law man his idea of letting youngsters see what was in store for them should they commit crime.

Slavin's policy was to let them see, but let them out before they became too familiar with their surroundings-- before they lost their fear of jail.

Two years ago, when Sheriff Slavin resigned his post, he purchased his first Jail on Wheels. For a year it traveled the country, and everywhere it went the boys and girls thought it "just swell." So once again he dug deeply into his sock. Mortgaging, scraping, borrowing, Slavin finally gathered together enough money to buy another Jail on Wheels which he sent after the first to do what it could to eliminate "the first offender."

When one of these jails enters a city it goes first of all to one of the school yards. Here each morning its doors are opened to the children. Instructors, who travel with the jail, carefully explain all the the workings of the apparatus within.

They take the children from leg irons to teletype, from guns to manacles, and then for a peek into the bucket-type cell. From there they go along down the last mile for a look at the electric chair. In the afternoon the Jail on Wheels is taken downtown and parked at some busy intersection where the general public may look it over.

At the exit from the jail a plate is strategically placed so that whosoever desires may make a contribution to crime prevention. Donations received in this fashion are used to pay expenses and support the latest of ex-Sheriff Slavin's charities-- a home for boys at Milford, Conn.

Slavin calls it Boys' Village. Here he allows the boys to do all the things a normal boy should-- go to the movies, ride trolley cars, run down to the corner store for candy, go to church, or the hundred and one other things that a does when he has a normal home.

The kindly ex-sheriff hopes some day to have at least six of his Jails on Wheels touring the country. He estimates that this number could visit each town in the United States at least once every four years.

"And even if they save only one boy from the electric chair," says Slavin, "they'll be well worth their cost."

Mansfield (Ohio) News-Journal, November 12, 1948.

Copyright © 2007 Larry Slavens. All rights reserved.