Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
There’s a building in Visalia that can easily be overlooked by those on the hunt for architectural beauty. It doesn’t have a fancy cupola, portico, cornice work or any other eye-catching design feature. It is simple and looks like a box. In fact, to many walking or driving by it today, the structure may appear to be an extension of the ornate Tulare County Jail, the building to its west. But clearly, these buildings on the northeast corner of Oak and Church streets are two distinct buildings with two different, although related, histories.
Prisoners first entered the old jail building in 1918. Since then, its Renaissance Revival style and interesting history have attracted much attention and been written about extensively. But its “plain Jane” neighbor to the east hasn’t been given much thought, so it’s time to highlight the structure that holds the distinction of being Tulare County’s first psychopathic ward.
In the 1800s, there were few government agencies or resources to help those needing mental health services. Those experiencing mental illness were almost exclusively taken care of by family mem- bers. In Tulare County, those individuals who became too dangerous for families to care for were taken to the county jail until a more suitable place could be found.
The situation involving Visalian Noble Carter is a good example. As a young boy, he had suffered a severe blow to his head, causing him to be incoherent and unpredictably violent. In 1892, the 20-year-old man’s behavior was beyond control, and he was taken to the Tulare County Jail to await a sanity hearing. While locked up, he was attacked by a prisoner. Drs. Pendergrass and Bernhard examined Carter and recommended to Wheaton Gray, the Tulare County Superior Court judge serving as the sanity hearing authority, that he be institutionalized. The judge agreed and Carter was ordered to the Stockton “insane asylum.
For many years, little changed for the mentally ill. Those deemed too dangerous continued to be housed in the county jail “charged” with insanity, and oftentimes treated like the others in the jail population. Eventually, doctors would examine them, a hearing was held, and the judge would make a ruling. Those found sane were either released to family or friends, or sent to a county hospital. Those deemed insane were sent to a state institution.
In Tulare County, the sanity hearing by a Superior Court judge was a formal affair held in a special room in the jail. It was a challenging ordeal with a judge, the alleged mentally ill person, guards, doctors and witnesses, all crammed inside a room about 7 feet by 9 feet.
By the 1920s, change was coming. By this time, the state had required separation of the mentally ill from prisoners, but the county sheriff could not always comply, especially with jail overcrowding. In 1929, the Tulare County Grand Jury recommended that a “psychopathic ward be established at the county jail.…”
The 1930 Grand Jury report repeated the recommendation for better care. In its report, it acknowledged, “Several preceding grand juries have called the attention of those in authority to the necessity for a better provision for the handling of insane patients, but to the date of the writing of this report no adequate provision appears to have been made. At present, persons claimed to be insane are placed in the county jail under the supervision of the sheriff and the sheriff has no method of caring for these patients, except as he would other prisoners. A psychopathic ward is, there- fore, necessary.…”
Over the years, eight grand juries had recommended that a psychopathic ward be constructed. On Oct. 11, 1939, the Visalia Times Delta joined the grand jury and pointed out, “Such persons (mentally ill), as several grand juries have pointed out repeatedly, should not be treated as criminals or should they be confined, while awaiting hearings, in quarters constructed originally for persons accused of grave crimes. The present system of conducting hearings in limited jail quarters is reprehensible.” Everyone seemed to agree that a facility needed to be built, but there was no agreement on where to build it.
Some advocated that a ward could be built in Tulare by the county hospital, but critics believed that the inconvenience for the judges and others made that option not feasible. Others argued that the ward should be built by, or housed in, the County Old People’s Home at 408 E. Murray Ave. in Visalia. Superior Court Judge Frank Lamberson supported that idea because it afforded the ward access to nurses and other medical staff. He felt strongly that insanity was an illness and not a crime.
Yet others felt that the facility should be at the Tulare County Jail and not at the old folks home. Assistant District Attorney Leroy McCormick was in that group and publicly said, “The location is wrong for three reasons. First, it is too far from the jail where there are people capable of handling violent patients; second, the Old People’s Home has no equipment to care for this type of patient, and third, the Old People’s Home is a place for aged people and the noise of an insane ward would not fit into the picture.”
In May 1940, the Tulare County Grand Jury recommended the jail site. The Tulare County Board of Supervisors agreed and hired Fresno architect David H. Horn to draw up the plans.
In February 1941, a building permit was issued for the $9,144 facility with Harris Construction Co. chosen as the contractor. About three months later, the building with a basement, four “cells,” a hearing room and connecting hallway to the jail was finished. The first use of the build- ing for hearings took place on May 21, 1941, when Judge Lamberson heard three cases.
Just how long the building served as the psychopathic ward is not known, but it appears that by 1955, the service had relocated. The building that served the county’s most vulnerable continues to stand today. What the 79-year-old building lacks in stylish design, it more than makes up for in interesting history as Tulare County’s first psychopathic ward.