June 16, 2015
Highland Park, West End/West 7th, Downtown
It was fabulous to be back on my bike. First, it had been almost two months since my last ride due to a medley of out-of-town travel, bad weather and a non-biking related injury. Second, it got me out of work on a spectacular June afternoon. Third, my primary destination, Downtown, and the story to come with it, were arresting.
I took Montreal Avenue east, down the hill toward West 7th Street. The stoplight at Montreal, Lexington and West 7th was red so, as I waited, I studied two public works employees re-striping the crosswalk on the opposite side of Montreal. One worker muscled the obviously bulky road striping machine while the other struggled to protect herself and her partner from inattentive drivers.
I take self-preservation seriously on each and every bike ride. Frequently, therefore, I’ll opt for an indirect, even serpentine, route along lightly traveled side streets (called non-arterial streets in public works lingo). Instead of riding along the occasionally perilous West 7th Street, I followed Montreal east through the Crosby Lake Business Center and into the Victoria Park neighborhood in the West End, where Montreal almost magically becomes Adrian Street. Two blocks east, at Perlman, Adrian Street is forsaken for Kay Avenue.
The Sholom Home East at 740 is the only address on Kay Avenue. Richard Shaller owned and operated Big Wheel Rossi, a chain of auto parts stores, for more than 30 years. (1)
As a car guy, I’ll always brake for classic American metal like this ’58 Chevrolet Biscayne.
There is an odd little triangular spit of land at the intersection of West 7th, Jefferson and Oneida Streets. The green space is not labeled on any official city map, nor is it among the designated parks on the City of Saint Paul website.
So what is this place? Who owns it and maintains it? And what are the sandstone formations? Those questions remain unanswered for the time being.
This building at along West 7th and Leech Street on the western edge of Downtown intrigued me enough to pause. Among the curiosities of the building known both as the Paulina Apartments and Paulina Flats is its address. Ramsey County tax records declare the address as 6 Leech Street, which jibes with the entrance on Leech. However, on 7th Street, the ground floor unit nearest Downtown is posted as 327 West 7th.
It’s the demolition of the landmark 7 Corners Hardware, which will be replaced by a building combining the ubiquitous “ground floor retail”, with a hotel and apartments above.
Now in the heart of Downtown, I stopped and locked my bike at the corner of St. Peter Street and Kellogg Boulevard, next to the Art Deco wonder that is the Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse. There I waited for Ramsey County Deputy Sergeant John Eastham and John Siqveland, County Public Communications Director, who were going to take me on a tour of the shuttered former Ramsey County Jail, officially called the Adult Detention Center. (Be aware that I’ll use Adult Detention Center, ADC and jail interchangeably.)
The Adult Detention Center opened to ‘customers’ in 1979 and was used 14 years. Sergeant Eastham worked at the ADC from 2000 until its 2003 closure.
We entered the jail through the attached Ramsey County Government Center West building at 50 West Kellogg Boulevard, in actuality several buildings that housed West Publishing until its 1991 move to Eagan.
The first item of interest Sergeant Eastham pointed out was a sign for the 6 and a ½th floor. He explained that the floors in the jail were at different levels than those in the old West Publishing/Government Center West building.
The 6th floor is the upper-most level in the building. Simply known as “The Floor” by jail staff, the 6th story primarily held offices.
Between the era in which the ADC was built and the building’s use, I wasn’t surprised by the austere, even grim interior. What is surprising is the jail received a National AIA Honor Award for its design.
“I told people I did five years in the jail…eight hours at a time.”
Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy John Eastham on his time working at the old county jail on Kellogg Boulevard
Prisoners were brought into the Ramsey County Jail through two entrances. Those who arrived in a sheriff’s department vehicle rode in via a driveway off Kellogg Boulevard that dipped from street level to one story below.
According to Sergeant Eastham, “The paddy wagon would come in here and this is where they would do ‘the dump,’ where they would bring the prisoners in and transfer them from the annex and then they would come into the jail population.” This spot is called the sally port.
Other prisoners were escorted from the courthouse to the jail via a tunnel that ran underneath Kellogg Boulevard.
We then stopped in the ADC Master Control center, where I learned about two Master Control stations, ‘Buttons’ and ‘The Pad’, worked by deputies. Sergeant Eastham explained that ‘Buttons’ controlled access to the main doors in the jail, “Somebody would call you on an airphone (an intercom system), push a button, (a button light) would light up; you would see what button was activated. You push the number in for the door. You talk to the person; the person would say open up, you’d push the button and it would cycle open.”
‘The Pad’, meanwhile, used no technology whatsoever. Almost inconceivably, according to Sergeant Eastham, details about all the inmates were hand-written on pieces of paper. “We had to hand-write (the name of) every inmate that came in and keep track of them. You would keep track on a little piece of paper all the stuff about the inmates–who they were, what their charges were, the date they came in, the property number and you’d write it all down and then you’d have a metal flip page with a whole bunch of little slots where you’d put the paper in. It was for every physical cell inside this entire facility.
“You’d have to write on the pad who went out to court, when they came back, what happened with them when they came back, who left bails, bonds, all that stuff to keep track of every inmate in custody.“
Sergeant Eastham’s first assignment at the ADC was ‘Buttons’ and then ‘The Pad.’ “I worked the Pad two and a-half years and in my two and a-half years I never had an errant release; I never had any mistakes and actually caught four or five before the guys walked out of the door. I was pretty proud of that.”
I am astonished that inmates weren’t mistakenly released daily with this archaic system. Kudos to Sergeant Eastham and the others on ‘The Pad’ for their organization and focus.
“These two spots (Buttons and the Pad) were the most difficult spots in the entire facility.”
After Master Control, we walked to the elevator. The first thing Sergeant Eastham pointed out was that there are no buttons inside, one of many security measures in the jail. The Sergeant went on to say, “(The elevator) was run by the Button person. Usually 12 to 15 inmates could fit in an elevator with one deputy. You’d pack ‘em all in, tell them to make some space and stand right here (in front of the doors). You’d face them and the door would shut behind you. The elevator would go down, As soon as the door would open up you’d back out.”
Surprisingly, neither Sergeant Eastham nor any other deputy were attacked on the elevator by an inmate. “You never, ever went on an elevator like that with anyone that previously had shown any hinky behavior. Everybody in the elevator knew there was no way out. Once you’re in here, what are you going to do? You’re going to run to one side of the building and you’re going to get tired and that’s all that’s going to happen.”
Sergeant Eastham mentioned that transporting inmates in the jail elevator changed how he rides public elevators, “You get on the elevator and everyone else would face toward the door and you’d face toward them. Then you wouldn’t push the buttons because here, when you walk by you tell the person running the Buttons, ‘I need to go to floor three,’ or whatever. So you’d stand there and you’re staring at them AND you’re not pushing any buttons so you automatically ride down to their floor. So there were a lot of civilians that were freaked out.”
Inmates tried to escape from the Kellogg Avenue jail only two times. The first, in the early 80s, was discovered because of plumbing problems. The inmate attempted to tunnel his way out of the ADC by scraping away grout and cement from the blocks in his cell. He flushed the debris down the toilet, eventually amassing enough to obstruct the plumbing.
The other breakout attempt came one night as Sergeant Eastham worked the sixth floor. He heard loud pounding. “The thing about this building is that it reverberates because it’s just metal and brick. It was really hard to get a bead on where it was coming from.”
Eastham and a sergeant searched one section of cells (called a pod) and found nothing amiss.
The second pod, said Eastham, was a different story. “As soon as I looked in, it just didn’t look right. So I called for the door to be opened and walked in and all the inmates came to ask me a whole bunch of questions so I knew something was up.”
The situation crystallized for Eastham when he walked to the entrance of a cell and saw jagged cracks and pits in the window.
At the time, Eastham didn’t know what the inmates used to try to break the window but he knew he needed help. “The first thing I thought of was that if they got something that can do that to the window I don’t want to be in here by myself.”
Inmates were ordered to return to their cells and that’s when Eastham figured out there was no way the man assigned to the cell with the damaged window was involved in the escape attempt. “I knew the guys that were working on this had been working hard and he didn’t have any sweat. I found out that two guys [who] lived in that room,” he said, pointing over to a nearby cell, “actually were breaking out his window and threatened him.
“They also had about 100 feet of bed sheets tied end-to-end; they had shoved all the sheets up into the wash bucket when it wasn’t being used… So their goal was to break the window out, tie off and shimmy down.”
The special security windows, Eastham told me, had a strong poly sheath sandwiched between two pieces of glass, stronger than, but similar to, tempered glass in vehicles. That’s why the window cracked but wouldn’t break, even under assault from the sharp corner of a metal stool.
Architects and jail officials made some significant changes in the design and construction of the new Adult Detention Center because of incidents in this facility. For example, cells in the new jail have windows but they’re frosted, which has eliminated ‘mooning’ by inmates.
The most notable change is the location of deputies’ desk–in the middle of the pod, giving jail staff almost continuous access to the sights, sounds and smells. Direct supervision, as it’s called, has become the preferred design for jails.
In the old ADC, deputies watched over each pod from above from a secure control room. Not only couldn’t they directly interact with inmates from there, but deputies couldn’t hear much of what the inmates discussed.
In what is a remarkable engineering achievement, the old jail literally clings to the bluff above Shepard Road. It is attached to the cliff by hundreds (or more) of thick bolts that were pounded into the rock below Kellogg Boulevard. Concrete was poured for a structural wall, supported by the bolts, nuts and metal plates. The building is also supported by the foundation on the ground approximately 100 feet below Kellogg Boulevard.
John Siqveland, Ramsey County Public Communications Director, also on the tour, related a practical joke a former maintenance man-turned-deputy pulled on new jail employees. “He’d have his big wrenches and he would go back here and start banging around and making a bunch of noise. The new employees would say, ‘What are you doin’ back there?’ And he’s like, ‘You know, it’s bolted into the cliff so every month we have to do an inspection. I gotta tighten up the bolts to make sure it doesn’t fall down onto Shepard Road and into the river.’
Siqveland continued, “When he (the maintenance man) finally gets his promotion to deputy, one of the guys, he never quite caught on, says, ‘Well, who’s going to check the bolts? How are we going to keep from falling into the river?’”
“The huge windows were a great idea, but not such a great idea all at the same time.”
Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy John Eastham on the expansive and exposed windows at the old county jail on Kellogg Boulevard
Though he worked in a jail, there were some interesting, unusual and humorous happenings. The large south-facing widows encouraged creativity among some inmates and family members. As Deputy Eastham recounted, “Most people realize that taking off for strangers ain’t a good idea. If it was somebody who just couldn’t figure out that clothes weren’t really optional, we’d take ‘em off the prime real estate where they had opportunities and we’d move ‘em to a spot where there were no opportunity.” While every cell had a window, a few offered obstructed views.
As for family members, Eastham recalled, “They’d stand on the Wabasha Street Bridge with posters (like) ‘love you’, so it was cool but you’d have to go out there and say, ‘you can’t do that’.”
“This is the only place I ever saw a full contact chess game.”
Another time, Eastham recalled, a fight broke out over a chess match. Two inmates were playing as a third watched. One of the players castled, the only chess play when more than one piece can be moved in a turn. Eastham continued, “The guy (who castled) looked up when he (the observer) pointed at him, as soon as he looked up, punched him and knocked him out colder than a fish. I went in there and I put the guy up against the wall and handcuffed the guy like I was supposed to and I’m like, ‘What on earth did he say to you?’
“’Nothin’, man, he was cheatin’!’
“And I go, ‘What do you mean he was cheatin?’
“He goes, ‘He moved two pieces at once!’
“I looked down at the board and I go, ‘That’s a castle. That’s a legitimate move.’
“And he goes, ‘No, really?’
“I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Ah man, sorry. My bad.’”
Getting permission to tour the fascinating former ADC took months of negotiating. For that I offer sincere thanks to John Siquiveland, Sergeant John Eastham and other Ramsey County officials.
End of Part 1.
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