Photos from the Vault

SLO County’s new jail in 1970s had more room for inmates — and roadkill on the menu

The San Luis Obispo County Jail moved from downtown San Luis Obispo to Kansas Avenue in October 1971.
The San Luis Obispo County Jail moved from downtown San Luis Obispo to Kansas Avenue in October 1971. Telegram-Tribune

The San Luis Obispo County Jail has been in the headlines several times over the last few years.

The jail recently contracted to provide health services for inmates, and the FBI is investigating alleged inmate civil rights abuses at the institution.

Jail inmate deaths have resulted in lawsuits.

The County Jail has changed in many ways since it opened in 1971, expanding the women’s jail and adding a medical and special programs unit. The recent women’s jail expansion, which cost $43 million, houses 198 inmates; the original facility was designed for just 18 women.

Meanwhile, the county population has grown, and laws have become more complex.

When the County Jail moved out of downtown San Luis Obispo nearly six decades ago, it was a part of a trend. Like the jail, the county Corporation Yard, county Animal Services and the future Cuesta College all left city limits for surplus Camp San Luis Obispo land.

The new jail building had more space for records and evidence, plus a room that could be used as a conference room or emergency operations. There was a room to store prisoners’ belongings, as well as a darkroom to quickly process investigation images.

Cost-cutting measures were notable. Some of the office furniture was built by inmates at San Quentin and Folsom state prisons.

The San Luis Obispo County Jail also occasionally served roadkill for dinner.

Telegram-Tribune reporter Walt Beesley wrote about the jail’s move in a Nov 6, 1971, story, excerpted here for length.

IN FOCUS: A new county jail

Built at a cost of about $1.3 million, the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s department and jail facility is expected to be “open for business” on Nov. 16.

Sheriff Larry R. Mansfield and his aides feel [it] is one of the most modern and attractive in the state.

Movement of files and records from the present offices on the forth floor of the old courthouse began last week.

Extensive remodeling has been planned to make the old jail quarters on the fourth floor of the courthouse available for the county’s Data Processing System.

John Hamilton, an installer with Suppliers Inc., adjust one of the bank of closed-circuit television monitors that will help deputies keep a constant eye on things at the new San Luis Obispo County Jail, built for about $1.3 million. The jail moved from downtown San Luis Obispo to Kansas Avenue in October 1971. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

The jail facility move will be the first since the present courthouse was constructed under the old Works Progress Administration, a make-work program created during the Roosevelt administration in the early 1930s.

The jail portion of the sheriff’s department has been deemed inadequate for years and was the principal reason the new facility was approved. Normal accommodations are available now for only 49 prisoners. Another 20 or 30 usually are confined at the honor farm on Camp San Luis Obispo acreage, adjacent to the new facility. Capacity at the new jail will be 166 and there will be room for 18 women prisoners and 12 juveniles.

In terms of security, the new jail will be as “tight” as any such facility can be. A prisoner brought to the building by patrol car will be admitted through an electrically operated door that will drop after the vehicle stops.

Most of the prisoner’s route is followed by the eyes of closed circuit television which, incidentally, scans most areas inside the security portion of the building.

Sliding doors in the cellblocks are electrically manned, although they can be moved manually if necessary.

Special visiting rooms are available, as are cubicles where attorneys may confer — by telephone and through a glass partition — with prisoners.

Padded isolation cells also are available for those who require them.

As far as prisoners are concerned, one of the most practical portions of the facility is the recreation or exercise yard, which is heavily screened overhead to prevent escape. Exercise facilities were non-existent in the old jail.

This 1970s-era state-of-the art intercom was part of the new San Luis Obispo County Jail, built for about $1.3 million. The jail moved from downtown San Luis Obispo to Kansas Avenue in October 1971. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

For the first time in the local jail’s history, a full-time outside cook will be on hand to prepare meals. He will have inmate help in the kitchen chores but he will be paid under the federal Emergency Employment Act.

Showers and lavatories are all up to modern standards, a marked improvement over those installed in the old courthouse.

An innovation is the lineup room, where prisoners may take their places “on stage” for review by victims of crimes such as robberies and assaults. The same room, equipped with microphones and loudspeakers, also may be used for a courtroom.

It is hoped that in cases where several prisoners are due for arraignment or other brief court appearances on the same day, a judge may hold a session at the jail facility rather than making it necessary to transport all the prisoners to the courthouse in the city.

Once the new facility is in operation, it is planned to have trusties to maintain a vegetable garden to supply the jail, The institution will continue to use venison as an occasional entree at mealtime.

Deer that have been killed accidentally, on the highways or otherwise, usually are turned over to the jail by the Department of Fish and Game.

Landscaping around the building will be done later by the county parks and beaches department.

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”