MOUNT HOLLY — The Burlington County Historic Prison Museum is full of interactive exhibits, storyboards, artifacts and re-creations. But some of the most important relics of life behind bars are on the old stone walls.
Drawings, messages and inscriptions made on the plaster walls provide important insights into what life was like for inmates who were once imprisoned in the over 200-year-old building. This vital glance in time is the reason Burlington County is preserving this graffiti as part of a $2.9 million renovation project.
“Burlington County is rich with history and the Prison Museum is one of our most prized assets,” said Burlington County Commissioner Allison Eckel, the liaison to the Department of Resource Conservation and Parks. “Pulling open its oak doors is like stepping back in time, and the inmate graffiti provides insights about what life was like in the prison. It’s an important part of our county’s history and should be preserved.”
America’s first rehabilitation prison
Located on High and Grant streets in Mount Holly, the stone and brick Prison Museum building housed criminals from 1811 to 1965. It was designed by Robert Mills, the American architect who later designed the Washington Monument, the U.S. Treasury building and the U.S. Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The prison was one of the first penal institutions in the United States designed with inmate rehabilitation in mind. It was built to hold about 40 inmates, and at the time of its closing, it was the oldest continuously used jail in the county.
Although the County originally considered demolishing the structure after it closed, the Board of County Commissioners (then known as Freeholders) opted to save the structure and it reopened as a museum in 1966. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year.
In addition to its historic significance, the prison has garnered national attention due to suspected paranormal activity within its walls. Several teams of researchers have conducted investigations at the site, including a team from SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.
About 8,000 people visit the Prison Museum annually.
Preserving the graffiti scrawled on the prison walls is no easy task. Experts from Jablonski Building Conservation (JBC) are performing the painstaking work. In many areas, it involves meticulously gluing small pieces of flaking paint and plaster to stabilize it and prevent further damage.
About 13 areas of graffiti are being worked on within the building. Much of the art contains religious images or Bible verse. There are also several calendars and notes about inmates’ families and loved ones.
The other ongoing renovations include replacing the prison roof and other exterior and interior masonry repairs and cleaning.
The graffiti stabilization work and other renovations are being funded with support from the New Jersey Historic Trust, which awarded the County a $526,500 grant to assist with the improvements.
The building renovations were designed by Netta Architects, which is also overseeing the construction and preservation work. John O’Hara Company is the general contractor on the project, and Watts Restoration is the contractor performing the masonry work.
The rehabilitation marks the first major renovation at the site since 2001, when the County remade the prison’s interior and filled it with the interactive exhibits, storyboards and cell re-creations.
The work began in May and is tentatively scheduled to be completed by the end of the month or early November. Once completed, the County will schedule a date for reopening the museum to visitors.
“Our Board is proud to support this important work to ensure the Prison Museum remains properly maintained and preserved,” Eckel said. “We don’t want to see a significant historic site decay. We want to make sure future generations are able to come here and learn about what prisoners experienced during the 1800s through the early 1960s.”
Preserving Burlington County’s history
In addition to the work at the Prison Museum, Burlington County has also undertaken major projects to preserve historic sites such as Smithville in Eastampton, where industrialist Hezekiah B. Smith lived and manufactured high-wheel bicycles in the late 1800s.
The County also created the Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences in Mount Holly. Located in the historic home of James Langstaff, the Lyceum is a museum dedicated to Burlington County’s extraordinary history, from prehistoric times to the turn of the century.
Burlington County also helps support local organizations and governments preserve historic sites and undertake other with history-related projects by distributing grants. In 2023, the County awarded a record-high $78,861 in these local history grants.
“Our County does an extraordinary job both preserving historic sites and educating residents about their importance and relevance to the modern world,” said Burlington County Commissioner Deputy Director Tom Pullion. “We have tons of history throughout this county, and we encourage residents to explore Burlington County’s museums and historic sites to learn more about the people, places and events that that helped shape our county and also our nation.”