Madera’s jail couldn’t hold ’em

July 9, 2016

Madera County’s beautiful, new jail was built in 1898 and held its prisoners securely until it was demolished in 1953 to make room for more prisoners. The granite jail that replaced it, however, was put to the test during its first year, when prisoners escaped on three different occasions. (Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society)

 

In 1898, Madera did away with its old, wooden jail and replaced it with a brick and granite building. For years this stately structure, with its imposing tower, stood on 6th Street in all of its aesthetic glory. Then in 1937, a granite addition was added to the rear of the jail, and that’s how things remained until officials decided in 1953, that they needed more room and security.


To accomplish this they ordered the destruction of the turreted portion of the jail and its replacement with something more spacious and modern. Thus on Jan. 30, 1953, the brick walls and familiar tower came tumbling down, and in its place, the county built an addition to the granite portion of the jail.


Just as one would expect, there were howls of protest over the demolition of this half-century old Madera landmark. Not only did it have a history; it cast a sense of elegance from its home beside Courthouse Park.


The proponents of modernity, however, held fast. The community needed a new jail — one that would keep the citizenry safe from a growing criminal element. Little could they have imagined what the next few months would bring. Before the year was out, three major jailbreaks made folks shake their heads in amazement.


In less than three months after the demolition of the old jail, the first escape took place. Sometime in the early morning of April 6, 1953, five prisoners sawed their way to freedom by cutting through the bars of the interior jail cell, two bars on the outside window, and a steel mesh screen outside the window. Meanwhile 28 other prisoners miraculously heard and saw nothing of the escape. Two of the fugitives were caught the next day, and one was caught in Ventura one week later. The remaining pair stayed on the run.


The furor over the April 6 jailbreak had hardly died down when once again a group of prisoners decided to leave the comfort of the county jail before their time was up. This time six men were involved, along with the female inmate who assisted them. Sometime around midnight, April 20, a drunken woman prisoner in a nearby cell began to scream hysterically. The jailer, who considered her antics to be a mere annoyance, went about his business while the men sawed through the bars of their cell undetected.


Three of those involved in the April 20 exodus were caught within hours, but the other three remained at large as did two of the fugitives from the April 6 jail break. However, on April 24, Walter Neese, one of the April 20 escapees was sighted in Oakhurst and captured by Undersheriff Marlin Young and deputies Hildreth (Bud) Daulton, James Haney, and Fred Schmidt.


After the April breakouts, jail authorities became a bit more vigilant, and as Christmas approached in 1953, most everyone in Madera thought they had seen the last of escapes from jail for a while. Then came Friday, Dec. 11, and it happened again. Three prisoners gained their freedom in the year’s third jailbreak.


The third escape from Madera’s jail came as the result of a protest over food. Several prisoners in one of the jail “tanks” refused to eat and began to cause such a disturbance that it took “a small gas bomb” to quiet them down. Then some of the group stopped all of the drains in the cell and turned on the water outlets full blast. This of course caused a flood that eventually sent water cascading down the stairs to the main area of the sheriff’s office. This was the last straw. Something had to be done, so deputies ran up to the recalcitrant prisoners and moved them to another “tank.”

 

This one, however, had a door cut into it in order to facilitate construction work that was going on in the new part of the jail. The door had been secured with a heavy padlock.


Within moments after being left alone in their new cells, a trio of prisoners somehow broke the lock. Sheriff W.O. Justice theorized they used a broom handle, but he didn’t know for sure, and the other inmates weren’t doing any talking. Now there were seven escapees from the Madera County jail roaming the countryside — two from the April 6 breakout — two from the April 20 escape — and now three from the December debacle, at least for a day or two.


On Dec. 14, two of the escapees from the jail food riot were recaptured, one in Fresno and one in Chowchilla. The next day, the third fugitive was captured in Los Angeles and returned to Madera. That left just four escapees from the Madera County jail on the loose.


As for these other fugitives, the record doesn’t show whatever happened to them. Perhaps they are alive and still at large. If so, be on the lookout for 98-year-old Melvin Hunsucker, 85-year-old-Burt Brouhard, 88-year-old Thomas Stevens, and 86-year-old Hiram Blair.


This writer would sure like to talk to them before he notifies the authorities. After all, they did help put Madera on the map.

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