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A barber's chair on the fourth floor of the Lincoln Heights Jail, built in 1931.
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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The early history of jails in Los Angeles

From adobe to Art Deco, they were never enough

In 1836, a man named Gervasio Alipas sat shackled in irons in a squat adobe jail in the tiny, dusty pueblo of Los Angeles. He was accused of killing Jose Domingo Feliz, a scion of one of Southern California’s wealthiest families, with the help of his lover, Maria Del Rosario Villa—Feliz’s wife. When a lynch mob apprehended him in the prison, it was discovered that he had nearly cut through his shackles with a hidden file. “You did well not to delay,” Alipas smiled. “Had I more time I would have cut my chains, and when the jailer came with my meal I would have delivered the stroke and secured my freedom.”

Alipas would never be free again. By late afternoon, both he and Rosario Villa were dead, executed by a firing squad at the base of Fort Moore Hill behind La Placita, the pueblo’s only church. As the crowd watched in silence,” historian John Mack Faragher writes in his masterful book Eternity Street, “the men carried the bodies down the hillside to the Plaza and laid them on the ground before the jail, exposing them to public display in the fading light of the spring afternoon.”

The couple was most likely displayed in front of the Cuartel, Los Angeles’s first jail. Completed in 1786, the structure had originally been a guard house before becoming the area’s only prison. “It was a solid adobe building, square in shape, with a red-tiled roof, thick walls and small windows guarded by iron bars,” according to Los Angeles Times reporter George Kirkman. “This cuartel was located on the easterly side of the Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza),” on the edge of what is now Downtown Los Angeles.

Early Los Angeles was a turbulent, violent town. Political and monetary fortunes could change on a whim, and the small jail was often filled with political prisoners. It was also populated by many who defied the arbitrary social laws of the day. In 1816, a law was passed in California stating that “all persons who did not go to church on Sundays and also did not make the customary responses during services in a loud tone of voice, were to be set in the stocks for three hours.”

Imprisonment was also forced upon native Californians as a means of controlling them. “In January 1836, the ayuntamiento (town council) required all Californios to sweep across the town every Sunday night to arrest ‘all drunken Indians,’” professor and historian Kelly Lytle Hernández writes in the riveting City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965. “The alcade (mayor) required all those arrested to pay a fine or be subject to forced labor on public works projects.”

Because of these draconian laws, the small jail was often filled to the brim. Surplus Californio and Anglo prisoners were imprisoned in the home of the local curate, while native Californians were often made to sleep in animal corrals. By the mid-1830s, the Cuartel Viejo was crumbling and often overcrowded.

In 1841, the city council took charge, building a new jail on a low hill near the center of the pueblo. It was a “one-story adobe building with a flat roof, and it contained only one large long room, with no cells at all,” according to Kirkman. To keep prisoners imprisoned in this flimsily built adobe, the jailers resorted to primitive methods:

After the discovery of gold in California, this bastille was filled with tough customers who would have soon dug through its soft adobe walls and thus escaped from durance vile, had not our officials anchored in the end walls a huge pine log that thus ran through the middle of its one large room. Strong iron staples were driven into this log at three-foot intervals through the end links of short iron chains, the other ends of which were fastened to the iron handcuffs or leg shackles of the prisoners … As for the mere Indians and mongrel breeds, they were considered unworthy of such high-caste luxury as the leg-loggers inside the jail, so they were cast into outer darkness, by being chained to huge logs just outside the jail walls.

Imprisonment as a form of social and political control intensified when California became an American state in 1850. According to Hernandez:

Imprisonment was the first act of governance in Anglo-American Los Angeles. Before the first vote was ever held in the new U.S. town, the transition team in charge of guiding the shift from Mexican to U.S. rule hired a jailer. It was the jailer’s job to hold and feed people incarcerated in the county jail, which was the only publicly owned building in Los Angeles.

Entrance to sheriff's office and county jail at the northwest corner of Spring and Franklin. One of the signs reads "J. D. Dunlap, general commission, lands & houses for sale or rent.” Dunlap was also a deputy marshal.

In 1853, the newly formed LA County built a new jail at the corner of Spring and Franklin Street (roughly between Grand Park and City Hall today). According to Esotouric historian Richard Schave, the jail was two stories—the first story was brick, the second was adobe. It was attached to the old Rocca House, which served as city hall.

Jailing was already becoming a lucrative business—the city paid the county 50 cents a day to lease out prisoners to work in LA’s vineyards and orchards. Once again, native Californians were overwhelmingly targeted for this practice. According to Hernandez: “So disproportionate was the imprisonment of native men in Los Angeles, that the common council described the jailer’s monthly salary as payment for ‘boarding Indians as city prisoners.’”

This practice took an even more sinister turn. Hernandez describes a disturbing scene:

Held every Monday morning at the Los Angeles county jail, the auction of natives was a spectacle on the streets of Los Angeles. As one city resident recalled, the local Marshall would begin arresting natives on drunk and vagrancy charges at sunset on Saturday evening. In the morning, the jailer tied the incarcerated natives to a wood beam in front of the jail, allowing white employers to inspect and bid on them as convict laborers.

This injustice is even more shocking when one considers how many real crimes were actually occurring in the two decades after statehood. Los Angeles became known as the nation’s “murder capital” for a time, and for good reason. Violence was rampant, lynchings were frequent, and local law enforcement did little to stop either. Conditions inside the jail were deplorable—the ill and the healthy were chained together, and it was reported that one man died after defecating in a can for weeks. Since security was lax, there were occasional escapes. Hernandez writes:

On a stormy night in March 1853, the native men incarcerated in the county jail dug a hole in the wet adobe of the jail’s outer wall. One by one, they climbed out and stole away. That June, an “Indian” smuggled escape tools to a friend inside the jail. The guard, who heard the exchange, shot him in the head and leg. Somehow, the man survived the shooting. A few months later, the marshal, as usual on Sundays, “locked up 25 Indians, all supposed to be drunk” but as soon as he turned his back to the jail door, “crash!” went the door, and the Indians scattered in every direction, up every street in town.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Los Angeles experienced its storied boom, which transformed it from a Wild West pueblo into a bustling “American” city. The crumbling Franklin jail and other satellites were consistently overcrowded.

The gothic-style building to the left of the grand courthouse was the county jail. 
There were “hanging rooms” on the top floor of the gothic-style “New High Street Jail,” the building to the left of the grand courthouse.

In 1886, a new modern county jail was opened, located near the current location of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Downtown, much to the city’s relief. This three-story brick and stone gothic building, often called the “New High Street Jail,” was considered “handsome and well arranged” with the “best ventilation in the country.” According to Schave, there was also a series of “hanging rooms” on the top floor—complete with trap floors—which were never used.

On December 2, 1886, the Los Angeles Times reported on inmates being removed from the old Franklin jail to their accommodations at New High Street:

The cell-work in the new jail being ready for occupancy, a transfer was made yesterday; and last night the steel cages of the new bastille were well filled with a ragged army which has been under Jailor Thompson’s care for varying lengths of time … The prisoners were taken up handcuffed two and two, surrounded by officers. There were 56 of them in all, including the four murderers … all were pleased at the change … [of] comfortable quarters from the wretched old ones. All their old blankets were left behind, and they found comfortable new ones. The beds in the new jail were also a pleasant surprise. They are flat hammocks of canvas stretched from wall to wall by straps, and apparently very comfortable.

However, within a year, the new jail was already overcrowded and out of control. According to a history provided by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department:

In April 1887, the largest escape in the history of the Los Angeles County Jails occurred. Assistant Jailer Bob Clark was lured into a hallway where a gang of prisoners was waiting to attack him. The deputy was overpowered, his keys were taken and several of the inmates made a hasty escape. A jail cook known as “Joe” heard the commotion and confronted the remaining criminals with a meat cleaver. This prevented further escapes and rescued Jailer Clark from harm. Clark called for help and the jail was secured, but not before fifteen people had gotten away. Despite Sheriff Kay’s efforts, only five were recaptured.

The overflow in prisoners was due in part to law enforcement’s new target: poor, rootless white men. According to Hernandez, by 1880, the police had begun to arrest “vagrants” and “tramps” who came to town each winter. These men became the main source of free chain-gang labor for the city and county, which could arrest them at will. These arrests were often made under the umbrella of California’s 1872 Anti-Vagrancy Act. The Los Angeles Herald summed up the sentiments behind the bill, stating the common belief that “it is infinitely better to take tramps and vagrants into custody on minor charges than to permit them to roam about the city unmolested.”

In 1896, the city finally built its own substantial jail (demolished in 1955), a massive Richardson Romanesque on First Street between Broadway and Hill Streets. Known as LAPD Central Number One, this large complex included police headquarters, a hospital, and separate departments for male, female, and juvenile inmates, as well as the criminally insane. The Los Angeles Times was particularly impressed by the new jail’s “drill proof steel” cells, which would supposedly make escape impossible:

It would be a little short of a miracle if the prisoner should break out of the cage. But if he should accomplish this, he would still be within a steel-lined room, itself a cell. Its walls and its doors would seem impregnable to any assault. Nor are they the last barriers to be overcome, for the heavy gratings that rise on either side of the corridor and the great door of the jail still bar the road to liberty.

Almost unbelievably, by the turn of the century, local media and city leaders were already bemoaning overcrowding in both the city and county jail. In 1903, Police Chief Charles Elton recommended that the city construct a new jail since the existing one was bursting at the seams, as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

To house the overflow of inmates, twenty-three cots have been put in the larger room on the lower floor and ten in the women’s department. There are sixty-seven hammocks in the tanks, and fifteen in the felony cells. This gives sleeping accommodations for 125 prisoners … “On the day following last Christmas, there were 278 prisoners and many of these were obliged to stand up all night. It would be a waste of money to try to make the present building suitable for the needs of the department.” Chief Elton recommends that one be built capable of accommodating at least 500 prisoners.

In 1921, hundreds of prisoners rioted at the overcrowded Los Angeles County Jail at Temple and Buena Vista Street.

The city eventually built an attached annex to somewhat ease this overflow. That same year, the county opened a new jail, a three-story brick fortress able to hold 230 inmates, at the corner of Temple and Buena Vista Street. It was connected to the county courthouse and sheriff’s office by a walkway that became known poetically as “the bridge of sighs.”

Amazingly, within a year, a Los Angeles County grand jury ruled that the Buena Vista Street jail was inadequate to meet the needs of the county. “Our cussedness has increased in proportion to our population,” the Los Angeles Times intoned in 1905. “The authorities have suddenly come to and realized that the jails are utterly inadequate to accommodate the men who need locking up.”

Perhaps on account of this chronic overcrowding, security at the county jail during the first decade of the 20th century was remarkably lax. Because of a construction oversight, windows were opened at all times to stay up to California code. Family members were allowed to come in to do prisoners’ laundry once a week. According to Hernandez:

Reporters were constantly coming and going from the jail to scoop the daily crime story. Temperance workers, preachers, and teachers also maintained regular contact with the imprisoned. The sheriff allowed them to walk the corridors offering bibles, prayers, and books. The jail was even a favored honeymoon destination in the city. Hoping to catch a glimpse of a western desperado or bandit, newlyweds regularly visited the jail and walked its corridors. And prisoners themselves routinely left the jail. Trustees were often given permission to visit local bars so long as they returned in the evening, and every day but Sunday, several hundred men on the chain gang worked the city street.

In November 1954 hundreds of undocumented immigrants were rounded up and imprisoned in the stockade below Elysian Hills.

Los Angeles continued to arrest “undesirables” and “hobos” at an alarming rate. In 1908, a stockade was built beneath Elysian Hills, in present-day Echo Park, specifically to house incarcerated “tramps.”

“Now let the hoboes come,” Lieutenant Charles Dixon of the LAPD exclaimed at the stockades opening. “We’re ready for them.” These inmates in the stockades worked on public works across Los Angeles until their sentences had been served.

By 1910, Los Angeles had more incarcerations than any city of comparable size, Hernandez writes. The chronic overcrowding of the jails, as well as their increasingly filthy and inhumane conditions, began to come to the attention of progressives all across the Southland. By 1916, the Los Angeles Times joined the chorus: “No crime on the statute books was ever bad enough to justify locking men and women into a horrible den like this.”

Local women’s charitable clubs and the columnist Alma Whitaker tirelessly attempted to expose the dire situations in the city and county jails, where there were often not enough blankets, toothbrushes, or beds. However, these groups were primarily concerned with making jails better for a certain class of what they considered to be redeemable inmates—prisoners they thought were being tainted by close association with repeat criminals. According to the Los Angeles Times:

One man committed suicide [in the city jail] when sent back to be locked in this jail for the second time: and the rats ate his face off as he hung dead by his neck in his filthy cell. In the reeking women’s ward innocent and delicate women are sometimes compelled to sleep on a bunk three feet wide with a syphilitic prostitute, rotten and stinking with disease.

A cot, on which prisoners in solitary confinement were strapped instead of being put in straight jackets, at the Los Angeles City Jail in Lincoln Heights, built in 1931.

Progressives called for an entirely new type of jail—a “cottage-style” institution where inmates were given freedom and opportunities. In 1916, the Los Angeles Times called for jails with plenty of “California sunshine,” declaring “sunshine is cheaper than disinfectant: air is cheaper than medicine: cleanliness and sanitation are wondrous healers.” For the first time in Los Angeles, inmates’ rights were considered, and the city’s obligation to inmates’ welfare and betterment were clearly stated, as in a message from Mayor Frederick Woodman to the City Council in 1917:

In the erection of a new jail we should take special care of the humanitarian side of reformation work. The craving for drink and drugs, and the money to buy them; the need of food and clothing and loneliness are the big feeders of a jail. It is a municipal function to remedy them. Jail cells are the least important thing.

Nothing was done, though, due to a combination of bureaucratic hold-ups and fights between the city and county. “Our city and county jails are pest holes that we should shudder to possess,” the Los Angeles Times declared in 1921. “It is a crime to hold any human being, no matter how guilty… under conditions no rancher would impose on his cattle.”

That same year, Los Angeles experienced the worst jail riot in its short history at the Buena Vista County Jail. It was filled with over 400 prisoners (double its capacity), and the overcrowding was considered one of the main reasons for the riot. It began when an inmate was punished for “burning newspaper as a means of heating coffee.” Soon, the prisoners rebelled:

They howled, broke what few breakable objects were within their reach and cursed and struck at their keepers. ... Cots were smashed into kindling wood; everything breakable was broken … clubs were thrust through the bars. Sheriff Traeger was struck on the leg by the leg of a cot. Deputy Frank Dewar and George Kyme, a turnkey, were struck over the head by clubs in the hands of the enraged prisoners.

The riot, and a second one that followed, forced the county’s hand. In 1926, LA County opened the massive Hall of Justice, an all-purpose center featuring 17 courtrooms, a morgue, sheriff’s office, and 750 jail cells on the upper floors. The city, which had backed out of a deal to build the hall with the county, continued to use the 1896 jail, and in 1931 opened the Art Deco Lincoln Heights Jail. LA’s astronomical growth—and its pattern of mass incarcerations of certain citizens (increasingly black and Latino men as the century progressed)—continue into the present day, which has meant the construction of bigger, badder jails. Just another case of history repeating itself.

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