Los Angeles County Jail (detention facility)

US Gov Name
Facility Type
Location Los Angeles, California (34.077472 lat, 118.224875 lng)
Date Opened December 7, 1941
Date Closed
Population Description Held Japanese immigrants; also held German and Italian nationals
General Description Facility used to confine enemy aliens from Southern California after December 7, 1941
Peak Population

The Los Angeles County Jail is an incarceration complex that serves as the principal jail for the City of Los Angeles and surrounding areas, and is currently one of the largest corrections facilities in the world. Before 1965, the jail was located in Lincoln Heights, near the Boyle Heights neighborhood. During World War II, the jail served as a temporary holding area for Japanese enemy aliens arrested by the FBI following December 7, 1941. Like county jails throughout the West Coast, the jail held interned Japanese aliens until their shipment to larger Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) camps. While German and Italian aliens were subsequently arrested, the majority of those interned at the jail were of Japanese ancestry. Although the jail remained open throughout the war, the jail's usage by the FBI for Japanese internees diminished following the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in Spring 1942.

Immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FBI agents across the United States were issued orders to arrest enemy aliens based on pre-drafted watch lists . On the night of December 7, 1941, eighty-six Issei leaders were arrested by the FBI and local law enforcement and held at the LA County Jail. [1] For the next two months, FBI agents, Los Angeles Sheriffs, and LA policemen conducted mass arrests and raids in the Japanese American community, Although FBI records indicated there were 300 Japanese enemy aliens classified for arrest in the Los Angeles area, over 400 Japanese aliens were held within the jail by late December. The LA County Jail also served as a hub for arrested Issei from other Southern California counties such as Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo.

Holding periods lasted anywhere from a day to weeks. In the case of Reverend Seytsu Takahashi, he was held for ten days until his transfer to another camp. During the period of holding, visits were limited between inmates and family members. In some cases, families were told to wait hours for a short visit that lasted minutes. [2] Most enemy aliens were confined to the top floor of the jail, with most rooms being overcrowded due to the inadequacy of the facility and the high influx of arrests. Because of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, stress and uncertainty led to depression and, in some cases, suicide. At least two documented cases of suicide occurred among Japanese internees at the jail in December 1941. On December 12, 1941, an Issei women strangled herself in the LA County Jail following her arrest for possessing a Japanese war bond, and another case—the suicide of Dr. Rikita Honda —was recorded on December 14th. [3]

From the county jail, enemy aliens were subsequently shipped to temporary detention centers or permanent INS internment camps. Tameji Eto of San Luis Obispo was transferred to three facilities within days: Santa Maria Jail, Los Angeles County Jail, and Tuna Canyon detention camp , where a number of internees from Los Angeles were held. [4] Yet most were sent to Fort Missoula, Montana , where the FBI and INS officials conducted interrogations on internees. For example, on December 25, 1941, 214 Issei internees were shipped by train from Los Angeles to the Fort Missoula Internment Camp. [5] Additionally, during the later confinement of Japanese Americans at the Santa Anita Assembly Center , dissidents and suspected "troublemakers" such as Shuji Fujii, editor of the Japanese American communist newspaper DOHO , were detained at the Los Angeles County Jail for holding "secret meetings" (i.e. meetings where Japanese was spoken). [6]

In addition to holding internees, the LA County Jail was one of many sites where confiscated internee property was held, rarely returning to the owner. On December 29, 1941, Japanese American families, forced on orders by the Department of Justice, turned over contraband items such as cameras, guns, and radios to the Los Angeles Police Department.

While not part of the larger carceral system operated by the War Relocation Authority or the Department of Justice and Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Los Angeles County Jail represents the willingness of local participation in the incarceration and one of many unrecognized sites of confinement.

Authored by Jonathan van Harmelen , UC Santa Cruz

For More Information

Nakamura, Toshiko Eto. Nurse of Manzanar: A Japanese-American's World War II Journey . Bellingham, Wash.: Samuel Nakamura, 2009.

Williams, Duncan Ryūken. American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War . Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.


  1. "Western States Jail Hundres of Nipponese," Fresno Bee , Dec. 8, 1941.
  2. Duncan Ryūken Williams, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019), 19.
  3. "Japanese Alien Prays, Then Hangs Herself," San Francisco Chronicle , Dec. 13, 1941.
  4. Toshiko Eto Nakamura, Nurse of Manzanar: A Japanese-American’s World War II Journey (Bellingham, Wash.: Samuel Nakamura, 2009), 56.
  5. "Telegram from Immigration Edward Kline to N.D. Collaer, Dec. 25, 1941." RG 85.4.2, Fort Missoula Files, National Archives.
  6. Tamie Tsuchiyama, Report on Santa Anita, Oct. 3, 1942, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records collection, Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B8.05, accessed on Apr. 5, 2020 at http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/cubanc6714_b022b08_0005.pdf , 4–5, 10–11, 25–26.

Last updated March 19, 2021, 11:09 p.m..