Go Directly to Jail

Have you ever played Monopoly, and the man in blue with the nightstick sends you to the can. “Bummer,” one might say. My first trip to the Orange County Jail, one of downtown’s more ominous structures, was not at all like this.

Originally designed in 1969, around the early 80’s the over crowded jail was the site of a firestorm of controversy. It seems the County, having taken on the responsibility for locking up all the local bad guys, could not fit all the shmucks (not exactly a law and order term) behind bars. The solution to this dilemma was for the judges to prosecute, or provide sentencing to jail, only the meanest and nastiest mother rapists and father stabbers, to borrow the terms from Alice’s Restaurant. (you had to be there). The police became accustomed to having their “catch of the day” kicked by nightfall. The police used to, and sometimes still do, refer to the popular wild trout fishing technique known as catch and release. The results were the bad guys were back on the street not too long after they were netted. The County had placed the bar, it seems, considerably higher than “high crimes and misdemeanors”, if you wanted to spend some time in the jail.

At this time, long before the great bankruptcy, our architectural firm was doing some work for the County and enjoying the accomplishment of a few local jobs. Suddenly the federal government, sometimes at the heart of a good controversy, decided that they should examine the catch and release policy and the resultant overcrowding. An in depth study was produced (I think Ken Starr may have had something to do with this). The masterminds of the study concluded (in dizzying array of deductive reasoning) that the jail was not over crowded; it was under utilized. In fact, almost an entire floor was vacant. The unused portion of the jail was a result of the County not being able to feed more inmates. This was made possible because the facility could not wash all the dishes. They could not wash the dishes because the dish scullery, on that particular floor, was in various states of disrepair.

Finally it was concluded that if they could feed the bad guys they could keep more of them behind bars. “Fix the scullery and you are back in business,” announced the executive summary. A federal court order arrived saying pretty much the same thing. The County needed the plans and the project now and concluded our local firm could do the work the quickest. And so my first trip to jail.

Each time we went through the same entry routine. Stand in a holding area, provide my drivers license to an expressionless sheriff, have the bars close behind and simultaneously open in front of me, and be escorted to the work area to do whatever it was I needed to do.

As it turned out we did the work on time and within budget, but not without incident. One day we were going through the finishing portion of the construction and having patched the floor; it was the first day for the ceramic tile. The tile setters were simple fellows, and seeing the entry routine was unnerving to them. As I stood by I could see the concern on their faces as they gave up their drivers license as ID. All went smoothly the rest of this first day for the tile crew… until the end of the day. Just as the tile setters were finishing their work two expressionless sheriffs approached. They stooped over the tile fellows and put handcuffs on all three.

It seems that when you visit the jail the expressionless sheriffs run your license for wants and warrants and all three of these gentlemen had tickets that had gone to warrant. Violators are immediately arrested. I ended up calling the families of these guys and informing them that the tile crew was going to spend the night unless they could make bail. Suggestion: If you visit the Orange County Jail, make sure you’re squeaky clean!

(Donald Krotee, “Architecturally Speaking,” Downtown Business News, January 1999)