For over a decade, the old Monterey County Jail has been the subject of debate regarding its historical significance and its purpose within the county. Built during the Great Depression, the jail housed civil rights activist Cesar Chavez for 20 days when he refused to end the lettuce boycott in 1970.
The goal of the boycott was to gain better pay and working conditions for braceros, who at the time comprised most of the farmworker population in the Salinas Valley. While Chavez was held there, 24-hour vigils were held by his supporters. He was eventually released by demand from the California Supreme Court. Chavez’s captivity became the catalyst for the national Chicano movement—and has been held up as the historic reason for the preservation of the now-dilapidated building.
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors reported that the building was structurally unsound with additional water damage and toxic air pollutants, prompting a permit to destroy the jail in 2002. However, that process was halted in 2003 by a vote from the Salinas City Council to recognize the jail as a historical site.
The site was a finalist for consideration as part of National Historic Park, and although in 2013 it didn't make the cut, the push for preservation carries on as many in the Salinas Valley say the jail is a critical part of Monterey County’s narrative.
“This jail is as important to our community as agriculture and water is to the Monterey County,” says Juan Martinez, an activist in support of rehabilitating the jail for educational purposes, specifically a museum about the historical plight of Latino communities in the Salinas Valley.
Now, after years of sitting idly after the county's plans to demolish the building in 2002, the building is back in play for potential reuse. Through July 9, Monterey County is accepting applications in response to a request for proposals seeking to rehabilitate and reuse the former jail site.
Guidelines for submissions are on the Monterey County website.
As of now, the jail—originally built in 1931—remains closed to the public, in its original state on West Alisal Street in Salinas.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I am hoping it will be positive,” says Martinez.
The Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists, Salinas City Center Association and County Supervisor Luis Alejo host a community meeting on possible reuse and on the RFP process for the old jail from 5:30-7:30pm Thursday, June 20. Laborers Local 270 Union Hall, 117 Pajaro St., Salinas. Free; wine and appetizers included. 755-5011, amap1.org.