Program Restores Old Hall : Inmates Take a Shine to Justice

Times Staff Writer

The Hall of Justice in Los Angeles was considered a masterpiece of form and function when it was built in 1925.

Dominating a city block along Temple Street from Broadway to Spring Street, it housed the Municipal and Superior courts, district attorney's offices, sheriff's and coroner's offices and jail behind a 15-story Italian Renaissance facade of gray California granite.

Inside, even the lowliest county employee could work in wood-paneled courtrooms under gilded coffered ceilings and brass chandeliers.

But by the late 1970s, years of neglect had left leaking roofs and peeling walls. Workers said it wasn't unusual for ceiling tiles to fall during courtroom testimony.

Now, however, after two years of work by County Jail inmates in an innovative cleaning program, the once-faded Hall of Justice is beginning to shine again.

"What we had was an old building that needed about 60 years' worth of cleaning and repair," said Sheriff's Deputy Henry Carrel, who oversees the inmates' work. "We had Venetian blinds that hadn't been cleaned since they were hung 35 years ago."

County prisoners traditionally have cleaned their jail quarters in the Hall of Justice, and they began renovating other floors when county employees moved to new offices in Whittier last year.

About $12,000 worth of cleaning agents and sandpaper later, the lobby's marble has been washed and polished until the brass chandeliers are reflected on the gleaming pale-gray stone.

The inmates' work has spread from the lobby to a floor-by-floor renovation of offices throughout the old hall.

County officials hired professionals to teach inmates such skills as carpeting and plastering through a vocational program set up with the Hacienda/La Puente School District. Almost 100 trusties are involved in the project. Their sentences are reduced 10 days for every 30 days of work.

Other inmate handiwork includes the painting of offices. A Municipal Court room is being redone as a locker room for officers, and a Superior Court room with a 38-foot ceiling is being converted into a weight-lifting room for deputies.

Inmates are helping to expand the prison, which originally took up the building's top four floors, to include the 8th through 15th floors.

The prisoners say they would rather be sprucing up the hall than idling away their days. "It beats sitting around," said one inmate, who was installing carpeting.

"The work certainly keeps you busy," his companion said. "The time goes by faster and it keeps you from worrying about your problems."

While inmates sand, polish and paint, the fate of the Hall of Justice is still up in air.

Studies have proposed everything from razing it to stripping its granite skin and installing a new exterior to match the modern Criminal Courts Building.

Although there are not sufficient funds to build new downtown headquarters, Assistant Sheriff Jerry Harpe said officials are considering a plan to tear down the building and build a new one on the site.

Long-time workers are pleased to see the hall being restored to its former glory.

"I've been here 27 years, and it certainly was getting to look sort of dark and dingy," said Nathan Branford, the hall's "elevator starter," who once shook castanets to tell the elevator operators when a lift was sufficiently filled to leave the lobby.

"The place certainly was run down," said Maryanne Ramirez, who has worked with the Sheriff's Department for 10 years. "I used to work in the child abuse division, and you had to put plastic on your desk and stack trash cans around to catch the water leaking from the ceiling."

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