My husband, Chuck, at the old Hoosegow in Arroyo Grande, California, in early March 2020, before our jail tour was cut short by news of expanding concern about coronavirus. Old Prisons photo by Claudia Elliott

I’m a big fan of “heritage travel” and have always enjoyed stopping to read historical markers and tour old buildings and museums. Visiting old prisons and jails has become one of my passions, and my husband and I had several trips planned for 2020 — although the risks associated with COVID-19 and our responsibility to shelter in place means that we all have to become armchair travelers for now.

Still, the first week of March (before everyone in our part of the world was advised to stay put), my husband and I traveled more than 1600 miles and managed to visit 12 of the old jails on my ever-growing list. We had to cut our trip short because of growing concern about the coronavirus, but I’m glad we had an opportunity to see so many old jails in such a short amount of time. 

We live on the southern coast of Oregon, but most of the jails we saw on this trip were located just a short distance off Interstate-5 between Yreka in Northern California and Bakersfield in Central California. Two were on California’s Central Coast.

As I prepare to wrap up the April 2020 edition of Old Prisons Magazine, I have plenty of material to work on during our continued social isolation!

Old jails like Easter eggs

Since I started looking for old jails, I’ve discovered that there are many of them, sometimes tucked into little parks without much fanfare or off the beaten track. I’ve likened looking for old jails to hunting for Easter eggs — sometimes they might be right under your nose, but you don’t notice them.

In the Northern California town of Montague, for instance, I knew there was an old jail, but I didn’t have an address. Fortunately, it’s a tiny town, so we just drove up and down the streets until suddenly I noticed a small building near the fire station. At the rear of the building, the tiny windows had bars! Yep, that was the old jail!

There is no signage, and the building did not appear to have been open recently. Fortunately, a very dedicated volunteer with the Siskiyou Historical Society (Jennifer Bryan) responded quickly to my email request for information about the former bank building that later housed Montague’s City Hall, jail, and other city departments.

Prisons, jails and pandemics

The coronavirus pandemic has changed just about every aspect of what we considered normal life. Many of us have heard stories of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, but the painful reality of facing such an event is something we might never have imagined.

As I write this, I’m learning of people related to people I know with the virus, including one man who has died, and sadly that will likely become more common. 

Travel that seemed reasonable just a few weeks ago is unthinkable now.

As in 1918 and other less widespread outbreaks of disease, it’s critical for those who manage jails and prisons to try to keep the virus out of these and similar facilities. We have an article this month about this challenge. And, of course, entertaining ourselves by touring prison museums and the like is not happening anytime soon.

In this edition

In addition to coping with the lifestyle changes necessitated by the pandemic, my husband and I are trying to finish up an unplanned kitchen construction project required after our icemaker line broke while we were away for the holidays. It’s been hard to stay focused, but I’ve tried to provide new reading material to help keep you occupied.

In this edition (and some additional content I hope to post later in April), you’ll see some of the jails we visited the first week of March, as well as some great photos of old jails in Nevada and Arizona that my brother and his wife, David and Marian Galloway, shared with me.

I appreciate those who make contributions to Old Prisons Magazine, and this includes retired professor Jay Moynahan, who shared an article about the first jail in Idaho that you can read in this edition.

Please stay home until it’s safe to travel again — and thanks for reading!

— Claudia Elliott, Editor