The first thing you notice upon entering the old Oklahoma City jail is the pungent odor. Maybe it got better as the day wore on, but when I arrived at 5:30 each weekday morning to read the overnight booking list, it was at its worst. It was the kind of smell that could wake the dead.
The drunk tank next to the sergeant's desk was usually full as defendants were waiting to make bail or be taken upstairs to the real jail.
As the newspaper's police reporter, my job each day was to write down all of the names of the detainees, their ages and the booking complaints. A call to the newspaper's librarian would ascertain whether the arrestee was an important person, making the booking newsworthy.
Security was much more lax back then. If you had a police press ID badge, access was granted to most of the jail and police department headquarters. The reason for the early hour was the night shift left at 7 a.m., and if you needed to interview someone, that was your chance. Few of them wanted to be awakened during the day by a pesky newspaper reporter.
• • •
That old jail at 200 N. Shartel in downtown Oklahoma City is finally newsworthy again. It's been vacant for many years and now may fall victim to the wrecking ball. City officials told The Journal Record newspaper there was some interest for redevelopment proposals, but those fell through. Lots of electrical and plumbing issues. The site will likely become more parking.
The jail was built during the Great Depression in 1935 with local and federal money. At 41,000 square feet, it could hold a lot of prisoners on its six floors. Interviews with detainees were rare but were held in a small, un-airconditioned conference room. (That encouraged brevity in summer months).
Nearby, taxpayers also were building the Civic Center Auditorium and, down the street, the Oklahoma County courthouse.
• • •
Male reporters were required to wear suits and neckties every shift. No casual any day. My post-college clothes collection included a tasteful, green plaid three-piece suit, circa Campus Corner Squire Shop 1975, and a light brown tweed from John A. Brown. That lasted a few weeks until I noticed Sears, Roebuck and Co. had a reversible, polyester suit, which effectively gave you two more ensemble choices.
The green plaid and brown tweed outfits, however, provided me with an interesting fashion experiment.
When I wore the brown outfit, the prisoners called out, "Hey, lawyer man, can you get me out of here?" But when I wore the green, plaid suit, they called out, "Hey, bondsman, get me out of here."
• • •
There won't likely be many tears when the jail comes down later this year. It houses mostly bad memories for most who happened to venture within its walls. Jails have limited constituencies. Few preservation groups want to use their political capital to keep jails from becoming parking places.
But for me and a handful of others, the old jail is a young reporter's career landmark and we're sad to see it go. A couple of years inhaling the smells and seeing the sights of the police beat is about all you can stomach, but it gives you a lifetime of stories and memories.