By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
and Lt. Monica Ayon, AA/PIO, California Men’s Colony
Historic photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
(Editor’s note: Unlocking History is part of an ongoing series examining the history of the department. Read the first part, http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2016/07/unlocking-history-california-mens-colony-was-once-wwii-military-hospital-part-1/)
With the opening of California Men’s Colony East Facility in 1961, everyday life at the prison was about to change. The relationship between inmate and custody staff was unique to CMC, with inmates holding the keys to their cells. Part of the culture difference at CMC could be attributed to its staff and lower-level inmates. While a prison has walls, guard towers, yards, gates and bars, the real stories of a prison are best told by those who put on a uniform or those serving time.
A story about fractured men
In 1973, starting pay for a correctional officer was $965 per month. There were 333 of them employed by CMC, according to newspaper articles.
On Dec. 12, 1973, the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune published the first of a four-part series examining life on the inside at CMC.
“The Men’s Colony story is about men. … It is the story of men whose frayed pasts turned society against them. It’s also the story of lonely men rejected by family and friends; men trying to recoup; men whose sole hope is the day, once a year, when they go before the state parole board,” the newspaper reported. “Leroy Amos (has been) imprisoned for about 11 of his 24 years. His current stint for burglary began at the Men’s Colony in 1969. ‘I’ve been in trouble with the law since I was 9 years old,’ he said. ‘At 19 years old, (my 10-years-to-life sentence) scared the hell out of me.’”
The inmate said he appreciated the younger correctional officers.
“The younger officers talk to the inmates. They treat us like human beings,” he told the newspaper.
“The prison provides activities for the men. They may include academic training through high school, vocational training such as electronics, sheet metal and carpentry,” the paper reported. “It is hard to detect the prison air in the vocational workshops, such as the drafting classrooms and machine shops. They are as well-equipped as any school’s; student-inmates are intensely at work on their projects; instructors are on hand for advice.”
Odis Franklin Smith was a 16-year veteran baker with the state correctional system, working at Soledad and Folsom. At the time of his interview, he had spent three years working at CMC and was the institution’s head baker.
“The atmosphere is much easier and lighter here than at Folsom,” he told the newspaper. “I like working with people. The fact that they’re inmates makes no difference.”
On Dec. 13, 1973, the paper interviewed Superintendent D.J. McCarthy.
“It’s a different work inside,” McCarthy told the newspaper. He described most of the inmates at CMC as “honest John citizens paying for their mistakes.”
McCarthy began at San Quentin State Prison in 1949 as a correctional officer. He also worked 10 years at California Medical Facility in Vacaville and did various stints at headquarters in Sacramento.
“Some people still insist that prisons should punish,” he told the newspaper. “I don’t think this is the answer. … Some men need only two months in prison while others need two years. But while punishing him, you also have to treat him. We can protect society now with fences and guns, but simply warehousing the men will not protect society in the long run.”
McCarthy said he enjoyed walking the prison yard “just to talk to people and get the feel of the climate.”
On Dec. 13, 1973, the paper focused on 25-year-old inmate Steve Clark. The inmate was serving his first five-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
“All my life I’ve fought authority,” Clark told the newspaper. “The biggest adjustment to prison life was having people telling me when to get up, when to brush my teeth, when to eat – adapting to an authority that isn’t going to bend no matter what. At school, if you don’t conform, you flunk out. But you aren’t going to flunk out of this joint.”
He said he tried to keep a positive attitude.
“I do my time one day at a time,” he said. “I don’t worry about tomorrow.”
The newspaper described a typical day for the inmate in 1973.
“Inmates rise at 6:30 a.m. They are housed in individual cells, about six by nine feet, with a narrow bed taking nearly half the space. Each cell has a window facing either the yard (the prison’s open-air squares) or the outside. Most inmates prefer the inside view. … There are rules: no wall hangings or paste-ups; no visiting in the hallway; cell doors closed at all times; no visiting other buildings, game rooms or television rooms; no card playing,” the newspaper reported. “Each inmate carries the key to his own cell. … This privilege is unique in the state prison system. The only time the inmate keys don’t work is during sleeping hours and during counts. … By 7 a.m., inmates are ready for breakfast. … Most inmates work an eight-hour shift in one of the prison’s several industries or service occupations, which make the prison almost self-contained. … After work, they are free until 10 p.m. for activities of their choice. For every 50 inmates, there is a television and a game room. Outside the television room is a poster showing the evening’s (viewing lineup) chosen by an inmate vote. Among the preferred programs were ‘Sanford and Son,’ ‘The Flip Wilson Show’ and the news.”
Clark’s philosophy on doing time was basic. “Since I have to do the time, I might as well make it as comfortable as possible. It’s easier on me and on the prison staff,” he said.
On Dec. 14, 1973, the newspaper published a story looking at the dangers faced by those who work in the prison.
At the time, the prison employed 333 correctional officers.
“Capt. Norman Williams, in charge of prison security, said, ‘We are not armed. We walk into a building with 300 inmates; some of them with nothing to lose.’”
Williams told the newspaper his job was to help control the flow of narcotics and weapons into the prison, keep a close eye on employees who may become involved with the trafficking, separating inmates who may harm each other and aiding in the investigation and prosecution of crimes that happen inside the prison.
“The potential for danger is always there and you’re aware of it,” said program director Wayne Estelle, head administrator for one of four quads. … Each quad houses 600 inmates. “But,” he added, “you don’t let it interfere with how you conduct your business. If you do, you better take another look at the job.”
Estelle, 40, began his career as a correctional officer at Folsom State Prison in 1959. He went to CMC in 1961, left a few years later to work as a parole hearing officer in Sacramento and then in 1971 returned to CMC as a program administrator.
Estelle’s father worked for the department until his death in 1957. Estelle’s brother, who had previously worked at Folsom State Prison, was then serving as the director of the Texas Department of Corrections.
“We’ve got the power here,” Estelle said of prison employees. “It’s our responsibility to administer it properly.”
Estelle would go on to become CMC warden, serving from Nov. 1, 1983, to Sept. 30, 1991.
Education behind the walls
Today, teachers work to rehabilitate inmates through education. It’s not a new concept. In the 1970s, instructors were busy teaching inmates skills to make it in the outside world.
The Telegram-Tribune published a feature story on CMC instructors in their April 19, 1974 edition.
“About a third of the 2,400 prisoners at the colony attend classes either half or full time. Some are finishing up their high school educations, other are learning to read and write for the first time,” the newspaper reports. “An educational program for CMC inmates is ‘highly desirable,’ said James Knadler, the administrative liaison between the Men’s Colony and the San Luis Coastal School District, since ‘lack of education is part of the problem.’”
He said it was an eye-opener to find out how many of the inmates read at the first- and second-grade levels.
Educating inmates is a way to help break the cycle of criminal thinking.
“Most (inmates) come through poverty,” said Bruce L. Russell, CMC supervisor of education. “They have to get that feeling of being a worthwhile man. I know we’re going to have failures, but the successes are sweet.”
Russell said the 17 instructors who teach at CMC are “a combination of classroom teacher (and) psychologist,” the paper reported.
Principal of the academic section in 1974 was John Bjarnason.
He said teachers have to gear their material to the adult interest level while making it simple enough for beginning readers.
The curious case of the purloined feline
In 1956, Mrs. Wright, a San Luis Obispo resident, phoned CMC to report one of her cats was missing.
“At approximately 4:20 p.m. this date, (the Second Watch sergeant) received a telephone call from a Mrs. Wright. She stated, ‘Someone from your institution brought his cat to my house to be bred with my cat. Now when he came back to my house to pick up his cat, he picked up the wrong cat. Please try to locate this man and have him bring my cat back,” reports a memo dated Feb. 25, 1956.
The sergeant assured the caller, “CMC would exert the utmost diligence in locating the anonymous party mentioned. The count was going on at the time. Mrs. Wright didn’t know the officer’s name, but only that he said he worked at CMC. The writer is passing this information on to all Watch Sergeants, with the request, that they try to locate this man as Mrs. Wright was extremely upset over the loss of her cat.”
On March 2, 1956, Correctional Officer R.E. Little penned a memo to First Watch Lt. R.J. Sloan.
“On Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1956, (I) took a Siamese cat to Mrs. Wright in San Luis Obispo to have it bred with a male cat. On Thursday, (my) wife picked up what was believed to be (our) cat. On Tuesday, Feb. 28, (I) was informed by a First Watch officer that Mrs. Wright had contacted the institution trying to locate (me). … (I) went to Mrs. Wright’s house but she was not home. On Monday, three attempts were made to phone her but there was no answer. Several attempts were made to contact (her) on Tuesday but were also unsuccessful. Finally, on Thursday, (I) spoke to Mrs. Wright and the matter was settled,” Officer Little wrote.
With the officer found and the cat caper put to rest, Capt. R.L. Wham fired off a memo to CMC’s Superintendent.
“The writer considers the case of the missing feline closed,” Capt. Wham wrote on March 2, 1956.
CMC’s first female warden
On March 22, 2010, Terri L. Gonzalez became the first female warden at CMC. She was one of eight women overseeing a state correctional facility at the time.
“Terri Gonzalez takes command of the California Men’s Colony with more than two decades of experience, and a quiet confidence,” reported the Tribune, a San Luis Obispo newspaper. “Gonzalez is nonchalant about being a woman overseeing the medium/minimum-security prison. … She will quickly tell you that women long ago breached the ranks and can be found in key management positions throughout the state (corrections department).”
She started her career in 1988 as a correctional officer at California State Prison, Corcoran. She had a 3-year-old daughter at the time.
“When I first started my career with the department, I felt compelled to do my job better than my male counterparts,” she told the newspaper. “Partly because I am inherently an over-achiever but also because I felt that I had to prove myself on a daily basis.”
In 2002, she ended her time at Corcoran after having risen to the rank of captain. In 2005, she joined CMC as a correctional administrator, eventually becoming chief deputy warden under Warden John Marshall.
As warden, she made sure to spend time walking the prison grounds.
“The inmates need to know that their issues are being heard all the way up to the warden’s level,” she told the newspaper.
In 2011, she became the acting associate director of general population male offenders for CDCR. The was officially appointed to the position in 2012.
Did you know?
The 1985 film “To Live and Die in L.A.” featured a prison yard scene filmed at CMC at Facility A. At the time, it was known as A Quad.
Timothy Leary, the former Harvard University instructor who told the youth of the 1960s to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” served a stint at CMC.
“Leary … was sentenced … to 10 years in prison for marijuana possession by a court in Santa Ana in 1969,” reported the Desert Sun on Sept. 17, 1970.
In 1970, Leary managed to escape and fled to Switzerland. In 1972, Swiss authorities ordered Leary to leave the country. He was apprehended in 1973 in Afghanistan, according to the Desert Sun, April 3, 1973.
“Leary’s lawyer, Bruce Margolin, … contended Leary was under the involuntary hold of an LSD flashback – a recurrence of the hallucinogenic effects of the drug – when he escaped,” the paper reported.
Other inmates of note include Ike Turner, Christian Brando (son of actor Marlon Brando) and Marion “Suge” Knight, founder of Death Row Records.
- John Klinger, July 1, 1954-June 30, 1966
- Harold Field, July 1, 1966-July 31, 1971
- Daniel McCarthy, Aug. 1, 1971-Oct. 31, 1983
- Wayne Estelle, Nov. 1, 1983-Sept. 30, 1991
- William Duncan, Dec. 1991-April 11, 2002
- John Marshall, Oct. 30, 2003-March 21, 2010
- Terri Gonzalez, March 22, 2010-Nov. 20, 2011
- Elvin Valenzuela, Nov. 21, 2011-2015
- Josephine Gastelo, September 2015 to present