Sunday, April 29, 2007

The old Caldwell County Jail

My intention today was to take photos at a couple of old Mexican graveyards, but I ended up in taking pictures of an abandoned jail instead. (Notice that I avoided the cheap writerly temptation to say I ended up in jail. It's not often I have such discipline.) The old Caldwell County jail is in Lockhart, Texas, and was in use from about 1910 until 1982. It's a kind of jail you used to see in little towns all around Texas. They have mostly been torn down, and replaced with facilities no doubt just as inhumane, if not more so, but more comfortable for the staff and harder to break out of, allegedly.
The old Caldwell County jail, Lockhart, Texas
(All photos can be viewed larger on Flickr.)

This is actually a very small building. I didn't count the, um, beds, but I'd say the place could have held 15 to 20 very crowded prisoners at one time. The jailer and his family lived on the ground floor. The two floors above were where most of the prisoners were housed, and there was a place for a gallows in a stairwell space between these two floors. The gallows was removed in the 1930s without ever having been used, according to the woman who ran the museum now housed in the jail building. The fourth floor was a single room used for solitary confinement. It was actually a lot roomier and nicer than the other cells, and it had a view. For all the other cells, there was an observation corridor used by the jailer that stood between the cells and the windows so the prisoners could not really see out.

The museum is a local history museum with the excellent odds and ends that I have come to expect from local history societies--a sword from the Civil War that belonged to a local worthy, a saddle from the Chisholm Trail along with a gallery of portrait photos of Chisholm Trail cowboys, an Edison phonograph with a hand crank, someone's piano, a local doctor's turn of the (20th) century bedroom furniture, et cetera. I love stuff like that, and the museum proper--i.e., the ground floor jailer's quarters--was full of such things. But to my surprise, the public is allowed to go upstairs and through the old jail itself, which is pretty much unchanged since 1982, except dingier and the paint as now all peeling, and plus there is no bedding on the steel beds.

There was a photo in the museum of the first sheriff to run this jail, above a display case which held his brass knuckles. He was murdered walking over the railroad tracks between the courthouse, two blocks away, and the jailhouse. I speculated that the brass knuckles might have had something to do with the unsolved murder, but the museum lady seemed to think it was courthouse politics gone very severe.

In any case, you don't want to go to jail in Caldwell County. At least not then, and probably not now.

Photos follow:

Common room. What you see on the opposite wall is a sink, not a urinal. Both the second and third floors had very low headroom. It looks like they painted over graffiti with metallic paint every few years, but when the jail was abandoned they seem to have left the last wall-writings untouched.
Common room, Caldwell County jail

Beyond the door is a 2 person cell, about the size of a broom closet. There are two steel bunks in there. Some cells were bigger than others, leading me to remember that the jail was almost certainly racially segregated. I didn't ask the museum woman, but I suspect that the smaller cells were for racial minorities.
Two-person cell in the old Caldwell County jail

This is solitary, on the 4th floor. As I mentioned, it is more spacious than the other cells.
Solitary confinement cell, Caldwell County jail

This is the view from solitary.
View from Solitary, old Caldwell County jail

Jailhouse wisdom. This is actually not original to the graffitist--it's a quote from Bernard Meltzer, a radio show host from the 1960s through at least the 1980s. Maybe the jailer put it there for the comfort of the prisoners, though I doubt if jailers were encouraged to write on walls.
Jail graffiti, old Caldwell County jail

This graffito is more mysterious, but seems more authentic--as you can see it was first written in pencil and then recopied more legibly by the spider artist.
Jail graffiti, old Caldwell County jail.

This cell contained "El Vato," which might be translated as anything from "The Dude" to "The Badass." El Vato may have been the same as person as "a la pinta Arturo Acosta." "A la pinta" would mean " on the way to the pen."
El Vato, old Caldwell County jail

Finally, a jail corridor, for atmosphere.
Corridor, old Caldwell County jail

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