From the Archives: Lincoln Heights Jail’s Inhabitants

Los Angeles’ Lincoln Heights Jail continues to be a popular subject of interest for many. I’ve written about the supposedly-haunted old prison several times on this blog, but never published the following article I wrote here on this site. This post originally appeared Sept. 26, 2008 at CSUN Scene, and has been updated with a bit of the jail’s history and additional photos. Enjoy!

The Lincoln Heights Jail has a rich history: The site had been used to house prisoners since the days of the Gold Rush until and was “used as a drunk tank” up until the 1960s, according to arroyoartscollective.org, and is a favorite in Hollywood as a filming location (The movie, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” shot scenes in the jail’s basement). And just like any old building with a past, it’s supposedly the home of the spirits of its past inhabitants.

I visited the historical L.A. monument at the recommendation of my dad, who gave me a plethora of places to check out when I asked about allegedly haunted places around town. “Go to the jail!” he said. Two days later with the expectations of catching an orb or ghost on camera, I dragged my boyfriend to 421 North Avenue 19 in Lincoln Heights, nestled between the 5 and 110 freeways.

In a 1997 article, L.A. Times reporter Matea Gold wrote:

The concrete, Art Deco-style facility was built in 1931, replacing another jail on the site constructed a decade earlier. Now surrounded by a confluence of freeways and railroad tracks, the aging lockup has seen better days.

Los Angeles Lincoln Heights Jail in 1936
A photo of the Lincoln Heights Jail in 1936. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library online photo archives.

Nowadays, the jail is the home of a state-funded athletics youth center and the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, a Hispanic theatre group that has occupied the building’s first floor for the past 35 years. Cecilia, who is the stage manager of the theatre company and has been with the organization for about 11 years, divulged the prison’s past.

Al Capone once spent a night at the jail after he was arrested at Union Station for tax evasion, she said, and back during the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s, the jail was used to hold those who were arrested. More recently, there was another group, the Aztlan Foundation, that also rented space at the jail, but they were kicked out of the building when it was discovered that the group was also holding late-night raves in the basement, Cecilia said.

Cecilia said she had seen and heard spirits in the building, and she believes they are the ghosts of the now-deceased prisoners. The last time she had any encounters, however, was about 5 years ago, she said. She said the best place to catch any sightings or paranormal activity would be on floors 2 through 4, but unfortunately, they’re closed to the public.

As we wandered up the stairs to the 5th floor to the gym, a voice echoed through the staircase.

“I’m locking up!” yelled a man who worked at the youth center. In a friendly tone, he warned us that it was not exactly a place we’d want to get stuck in overnight in the dark. Apparently, he had seen and heard unexplained things at the jail too.

Unfortunately, the only thing we left the site with were ghost-less photos and the realization that after trekking up 5 flights of stairs, we were in dire need of more exercise.

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Looking for the Lincoln Heights Jail address? You can visit the location at 421 North Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, California.


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  • Art

    I’m curious. How were you able to just browse the place since it’s now the BFA? I’d love to check the place out just for fun. Who would I contact to do that?

    • Hi Art! To be honest, it’s been quite a while since I visited, so I’m not sure who’s the best person to contact to check out the interior of the old jail. When I stopped by, I just walked around the outside of the building and took a peek into the areas that appeared to be open (namely, the staircase). In any case, I hope you have better luck than me!

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