The old Monterey County Jail tells a bitter story.
Thursday, April 8, 2004
Maria Teresa Rubio crossed over in 1969—35 years ago this month. She, along with her brothers and parents, went to work picking strawberries and lettuce in the Salinas Valley for almost nothing.
“There was no water, no bathrooms,” recalls her brother, José Maria Rubio, in Spanish. “You couldn’t speak to the person working next to you.”
People got sick from the chemicals in the fields and babies were born with birth defects. Slow and elderly pickers were punished for not working fast enough. Sometimes they would work 15 days straight for a $10 check.
“We saw many injustices, and nobody to defend our rights,” Maria Teresa says. “And then we heard about a leader in Delano. We heard they were striking over there. We heard César Chávez would help us.”
In August 1970, United Farm Workers founder César Chávez called for a boycott of all lettuce grown in Salinas Valley. The ensuing—and sometimes violent—lettuce strikes galvanized the local Latino community. Farmworkers wanted better pay and working conditions, and they wanted the right to organize.
While they were out of work, Chávez sent food to the labor camps. Local churches doled out small amounts of money to help the striking workers.
That same year, lettuce giant Bud Antle, Inc. went to court and convinced a Superior Court Judge to order Chávez to call off the boycott. Chávez refused and was thrown in the Monterey County Jail, where he stayed for 20 days, until Christmas Eve, 1970, when the state Supreme Court ordered his release.
Chávez’s incarceration brought national and international attention to the agricultural labor movement. Crowds of pro- and anti-union demonstrators stationed themselves outside the jail on a daily basis, and a near-riot broke out when Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow, fought her way through throngs of anti-union protesters to visit Chávez in his jail cell. Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. also visited Chávez while he was imprisoned in Salinas.
During all this time, the Rubio family stood vigil outside the jail.
“We would take turns—about two or three hours at a time,” Maria Teresa says. “We would hold the union flag. We prayed the rosary. One of the priests celebrated Mass outside the jail. Everyone had to be standing up. It was a sign of respect for our leader.”
Today the old fortress-like jail stands vacant at 142 West Alisal St. in Salinas. It’s bound by a chain link fence, and the cement façade crumbles in places. It’s been abandoned for about 25 years.
In February 2004, the federal government listed the old Monterey County Jail on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s believed to be the first and only nationally listed site of its kind, memorializing the work of César Chávez and the farm labor movement.
The county wants to tear it down.
In August 2002, Monterey County Supervisors issued a permit to destroy the old jail—part of the planned $78 million renovation of the adjacent county courthouse and government offices in Salinas. The project—including all three wings of the courthouse, and the new buildings—is slated for completion in March 2007.
Supervisors say the old jail needs to come down to make way for the new county buildings.
“I initially opposed saving that building—I still do,” says Supervisor Fernando Armenta, a long-time UFW supporter. “There are other ways we have preserved the memory of the contributions of César Chávez: naming a library, a park, a school, things of that nature. We don’t necessarily need a building to be saved.”
Local history buffs asked the Board of Supervisors to at least prepare an environmental impact report on the plans to raze the 73-year-old building. County officials say it would be a waste of money to prove what they already know.
They say the old jail is structurally unstable, water damaged, and filled with asbestos, mold and lead-based paint. A year before the supervisors approved a permit to demolish the old jail, about 70 county employees—primarily sheriff’s deputies—filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging they were unknowingly exposed to toxic molds and other health hazards in the jail while the first floor was being used for court-holding cells. The rest of the facility stood empty for 20 years, and was used to hold county records and paperwork.
County officials say it would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 for a full environmental impact report. They’ve already spent about $50,000 researching the building’s architecture and history.
Jim Colangelo, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, says he doesn’t know how much it would cost the county to refurbish the dilapidated building. “It’s an undetermined amount that clearly Monterey County does not have,” he says. “Any county use of that building would require a lot of work, first to determine how that building was built, and then to determine the cost of rehabilitating the jail. And if we were going to use that building for public gatherings, the standards would be even higher.” And more costly.
Colangelo says even if the old jail comes down, the new county offices in its place will include some type of monument or memorial to acknowledge that Chávez was here.
“The people who are fighting are missing the point,” Colangelo says. “We have always planned to make sure that history is not lost in the new building. The importance here is the farmworker movement, and certainly there is a way to remember and recognize that. But we don’t think it involves spending millions of taxpayer dollars to rehabilitate this building.”
In case the save-the-jail forces win the battle, the county has two sets of plans for the new government buildings—one with the old jail and one without. Construction crews are proceeding with a new administration building just west of the courthouse complex.
And while the demolition contract may be on hold for now, Colangelo
says county attorneys are actively working to get the old jail
de-listed from the national register on technical grounds. County
attorneys say the state and federal government didn’t follow the
correct procedures before listing the building. Attorneys recently
filed a legal brief with the appellate court maintaining that the
building is not historic, but rather an “old, dilapidated and
potentially dangerous Jail.”
A group of citizens say otherwise, and they’re taking the county to court to stop the wrecking ball.
“I tell people from outside the area that César Chávez spent time in the old jail and they say ‘How can the supervisors even think about tearing it down?’” says Mark Norris, a Salinas building designer and the board president of the Architectural Heritage Association, a group formed to save the old jail.
Shortly after the county agreed to move ahead with plans to demolish the old jail, Norris and the Architectural Heritage Association filed suit to force the county to produce an environmental impact report. The Monterey County Superior Court Judge, however, ruled in the county’s favor. So the group appealed the judge’s decision to the Sixth Appellate Court in San Jose. They’ve hired a top environmental and preservation law firm, Brandt-Hawley Law Group, which specializes in historic preservation cases throughout California. They’re hoping to have their day in court sometime this year.
Now that they’ve got the National Register of Historic Places on their side, Norris and company are sure the appellate court will rule in their favor. “Our attorney says we have a rock solid case,” Norris says.
Norris and Salinas architect Salvador Muñoz—the two men leading the fight to save the building from demolition—envision lofty plans for the old jail.
“We propose a gateway to the civic center,” Muñoz says.
Or, they propose the county give them the building, or lease it to them for a dollar.
“There’s a precedent to give buildings like this to charitable groups,” Norris says.
Adds Muñoz: “This building can incite creativity, and can encourage people to grow.”
Once they start brainstorming ideas for the building, there’s no stopping the two building designers.
“The possibilities are endless,” Norris says. “Maybe it could be a museum related to farm labor. Maybe an institute to study organizing.”
Muñoz: “They could have artists’ studios.”
Norris: “Maybe a restaurant with a menu that changes with the seasons.”
Muñoz: “Foods and wines of the Valley.”
Norris: “Part of the building could be a movie theater that shows cultural movies.”
Muñoz: “It could host open mic nights for poets and writers.”
Norris: “But the first thing to do would be to stabilize the building.”
The old Monterey County Jail was built in 1931, during the Great Depression. According to a historical monograph prepared for the county in 2002, preliminary sketches of the building’s design show an Art Deco-style building with a “stepped profile, stylized floral motifs and zig-zag patterns.”
However, the design went through at least six different schemes before the Board of Supervisors approved a final design—and not before the supervisors themselves, and then Sheriff Carl H. Abbot, weighed in with their own suggestions about what the jail should look like.
“The attempt to incorporate the opinions of all the people involved probably led to the final design being eclectic, retaining some Art Deco elements but incorporating details from the Gothic and Classical styles,” writes the architectural firm that prepared the historical monograph.
Before the jail was built—in the 1920s—lettuce became the predominant crop in the Salinas Valley. As a result, a large population of Filipino migrant workers moved to Salinas to harvest the crop. During the lettuce strikes of the ‘30s, Filipino farmworkers were imprisoned in the jail.
During the Depression, the thousands of Okies escaping the Dustbowl migrated to Salinas, looking for work, and took the Filipinos’ place in the fields.
When Salinas’ Japanese residents were relocated during World War II, Mexican braceros were encouraged to come to the Valley and work on produce farms.
In 1962, Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association. Eight years later, he would spend 20 days in the old Monterey County Jail, and possibly forever change the cement and steel building’s future.
However, Chávez wasn’t the only local notable to do time in the jail.
In 1974, Inez Garcia made national headlines after she killed a man in Salinas who stood guard while a second man raped her. She was convicted of murder and spent two years in jail before her conviction was reversed on a self-defense appeal. The court ruled that women have a right to defend themselves against rape.
And whether it’s historical fact or urban legend, some local historians and activists swear that John Steinbeck cooled his feet in the drunk tank at the old jail.Today, throughout Monterey County, saving the old jail is synonymous with César Chávez.
“Here’s an opportunity to preserve the legacy César Chávez left,” says Salinas City Councilman and union organizer Sergio Sanchez. In March 2003, the Salinas council voted 6-1 to urge federal historic preservation officials to add the old jail to its list of historic sites.
“They wanted to force him to stop the lettuce boycott,” Sanchez says. “On principle, he said he could not do that. He was found in contempt of court and went to jail. People held a 24-hour vigil ’til he got out. That’s powerful.
“Now, as controversial as César Chávez might be to some, he created a movement for Latinos, for farmworkers, for Chicanos. He kicked off the Chicano movement. That’s historic. For our children, for generations to come, the jail needs to be preserved to show and teach what happened, even though it might be uncomfortable to some.”
Juan Martinez, now a Hartnell College trustee, was one of those young Latinos inspired by Chávez. He was a sophomore at Gonzalez High School the first time he heard Chávez speak. The year was 1968, and after listening to Chávez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, Martinez says, he immediately signed on as a volunteer for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, going door to door and distributing leaflets to Latino neighborhoods. “Because we were bilingual, we were a real asset,” he says.
“Then we saw Bobby Kennedy get assassinated, and we saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated, and then there was César Chávez saying, ‘Don’t get discouraged. Don’t lose faith in the system.’ He wanted us to be involved in the system and make it work.”
Later, as a Hartnell College student and member of MEChA, a Chicano student group on campus, Martinez distributed food to farmworkers who were evicted from a trailer park in Salinas during the lettuce strikes. And when Chávez was sent to jail, Martinez and other MEChA students marched to the jail every day, bringing supporters food and candles. On Christmas Eve, 1970, “I was there in the doorway when he came out. We escorted him down the steps. I was honored to be standing next to him.”
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that in Salinas, with its nasty history of ethnic and labor struggles, the old jail has become a symbol of the people versus the establishment. It imprisoned the migrant workers who made the Valley rich—from the Filipinos, to the Okies and the Japanese, and, more recently, the Mexicans. Some say this is exactly why the powers-that-be in Monterey County want to tear it down.
“The reality is of course that the people who put César Chávez in jail still run the county,” says Paul Johnston, who heads the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “Even though Mexicanos have a lot more political voice in our communities, the overall power structure is still far more accountable to agribusiness and people who don’t care about the suffering they cause to farmworkers.
“It’s also an important reason to some people for demolishing it. The agenda for preserving the jail and using César’s time there and the struggles around him have been dismissed by county management. And I think it’s considered offensive to important constituents in the Valley who still consider the farmworker movement to be illegitimate, dangerous and offensive. I think the fate of the jail will be an important barometer to measure just how much progress we’ve made in the Salinas Valley towards becoming a more civilized, democratic society. Salinas should be proud of its history and preserve it. The problem is, the powers-that-be in this Valley are not proud of the struggles of social justice. They’re offended by it.”
The Rubio family has similar feelings.
“The people who want to tear it down—they are ashamed of what happened in Salinas,” Maria Teresa Rubio says. “They believe if they tear it down, people will forget the injustices.”
Supervisor Armenta says some people in Monterey County do want to erase Chávez’s memory.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s still a controversial figure,” Armenta says. “Why do you think a lot of farmworkers don’t have contracts in Monterey County? People may or may not have the guts to say it in public, but some people don’t like the fact that we have celebrations or marches about César Chávez.”
But Armenta insists that’s not the reason the county wants to demolish the jail.
“We don’t need that building to memorialize and respect the legacy of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in America.”
Deputy sheriff Michael Baldwin was the youngest guy working in the old jail in ‘77. He was 22. He worked in the jail until it closed, and now he’s assigned to the bailiff division.
He says he’s “not really interested in saving the jail,” but he knows the old building inside and out, and tells many stories that live inside its walls. He knows the names of the prisoners—primarily gang members—who drew graffiti on the walls with pencils or burnt cigarettes.
He points to a photo of a wall drawing depicting a woman with long hair and huge sad eyes. There’s a mountain range behind her and a man’s head with a long mustache to her right.
“I believe this one was done by Basilio Acosta,” Baldwin says. He flips the page to another, similar graffiti drawing by the same person. It says “Acosta” along the top of the wall, next to another woman and a peacock with long feathers.
“Yup, Basilio Acosta. He was a Nuestra Familia member. He had a false leg and we always had to search his leg every time he came.”
Acosta was eventually killed by the gang he belonged to for not following their constitution.
“He was using drugs,” Baldwin explains.
Baldwin worked the graveyard shift in the old jail and says the building reminded him of the “bottom of a ship. There were all these pipes running along the walls. It was dark and dingy.”
Daylight hours were the tamest ones to work, he says. “During the swing shift we started getting a little bit more lively. And anything goes after 2am when the bars close.” He remembers several riots and murders in the old jail, including one particularly gruesome one where the killers tried to disguise it as a suicide.
“They strangled this guy at breakfast and hung him from the shower, to look like a suicide.”
Chávez did time before Baldwin began working in the jail, but he says that some of the deputies who were on duty in 1970 told him that Chávez was allowed a “special chair.” Baldwin figured it to be a recliner, because Chávez had a bad back.
“About César Chávez and fighting for farmworkers and his willingness to do time in prison…It’s important, but whether or not they have to save the whole jail for that…they might be able to save the cell he was in,” he says.
Baldwin also worked at the jail when Inez Garcia was arrested. He remembers reporters outside, and women’s rights supporters marching with signs to protest Garcia’s arrest.
Captain Robert Schuler ran the jail in the late ’70s, and prided himself on the good cooking enjoyed by the inmates, deputies and district attorneys alike. Schuler often helped buy the produce and the meat himself, Baldwin says.
“The kitchen was small, but you seldom saw a fly and you never saw a cockroach,” Baldwin says. “The food was good. You could go in there and ask the cook to cook you up steak and eggs at any time. That’s when I started putting on the weight.
“One time we had T-bone steaks for the inmates. But then all of a sudden we started finding a lot of shanks made out of the bones. Pork chops, T-bone steaks, we stopped seeing a lot of those.”
Baldwin carried a metal box with him of hand-crafted weapons collected at the old jail: Toothbrushes and sink plungers sharpened to a point, match books concealing razor blades, firecrackers made from tin toothpaste containers, a handle from a mop bucket, pieces of aluminum from bunk beds and concrete from the floor, a stiletto switch blade and “your basic sock with soap bars in it.”
Baldwin pulls out one knife-like weapon. “This one, I consider pretty ingenious,” he says. It’s a metal hanger, folded in half and sharpened on one end. The other end is wrapped in a sheet to create a handle.
Baldwin speaks fondly of the old building. “I grew up with the old jail,” he says. But he says he doesn’t want to save it.
“The concrete was starting to crumble when I was in there. At one time I thought it would have made a pretty good museum, but now they have such a problem with mold and asbestos and lead paint. I don’t even know if it would be cost effective. At one point I thought it would make a good restaurant, serving jailhouse chili. But now I’m not even sure if it’s savable.”
An eclectic group of UFW supporters, local historians and architectural buffs, however, insist it is. They say they are confident the appellate court will agree. A court date has not been set.
Meanwhile the old jail sits on West Alisal, encased in locked fence, as new construction goes up around it.