Unlocking History: Visionary wardens targeted addiction, worked with communities, part 5

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor, OPEC

Today’s rehabilitative efforts in the state prison system can be traced back to the early days of the department. More than a century ago, visionary wardens pushed for job training, education and family engagement so former inmates could reintegrate back into society after being released from prison. Like the definition of visionary, these leaders implemented original ideas and planned the future with “imagination or wisdom.” This series takes a closer look at some of these wardens and their contributions to shaping what would become today’s CDCR. This is the fifth part in the series.

Battling addiction

Highly publicized narcotic addictions of film stars pushed the issue of drug abuse into the spotlight in the 1920s and ’30s. One of those stars was Alma Rubens, a popular actress in silent films, who fell ill in 1929, thrusting her addiction on the front pages of newspapers.

Alma Rubens was a silent film star who ended up addicted to drugs, thrusting the issue of addiction into the headlines in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

“Illness of Alma Rubens traced to battle waged by beautiful film star against use of dope,” the San Bernardino Sun headline declared, Feb. 17, 1929. “The illness of Alma Rubens … has furnished the motion picture colony with its first prominent narcotic scandal since the death of Wallace Reid.”

Reid, also a popular movie star, kicked his narcotic habit but “was unable to recover from a weakened system left by morphine,” the paper reported. After a six-week illness, Reid died in 1923.

“The word of Miss Rubens’ affliction caused almost as great a stir in the film colony as when the news flashed that ‘Wally’ Reid was fighting dope,” the paper reported.

A year later, she claimed she was clean.

Alma Rubens died in 1931 only eight days after she was arrested for possessing narcotics. Her battle with addiction helped bring public awareness to the problem. She even wrote about her struggles in an autobiography published as a series in newspapers across the country. She died before the series finished.

“Alma Rubens, the exotic screen beauty, today told for the first time the story of her successful fight against the use of narcotics,” reported the San Bernardino Sun, Jan. 31, 1930. “Her voice vibrating with emotion and her dramatic gestures punctuating the narrative, she related how she turned to the use of drugs, how she was caught in the whirlpool and finally how she beat down the craving which afflicted her.”

She was treated at the “state asylum at Patton from which she was released as cured only a few weeks ago,” the paper reported.

“I went through hell,” she told the paper, “but I’m cured now and I’ll never touch narcotics again. … The use of narcotics is a disease. There is no disease more deadly.”

In 1930, she penned an autobiography, “This Bright World Again,” which published as a newspaper series in 1931.

“I realized I was a dope addict; a term which has always and still does strike terror into my soul,” she wrote.

She wouldn’t live to see the autobiography in print.

On Jan. 13, 1931, she was arrested on charges of possessing narcotics. Eight days later, the 33-year-old actress was dead.

“Her long battle with drug addiction ended with an attack of pneumonia which she was too weak to withstand. Alma Rubens, former motion picture star … (died) today,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, Jan. 22, 1931.

The narcotics problem continued to plague California in following decades.

“Narcotics pose problem for California board,” declared a headline in the Madera Tribune, April 19, 1954.

The first report of the California Citizens Advisory Committee on Crime Prevention presented the results of a year-long study to then-Attorney General Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.

The report urged treatment rather than punishment for addicts.

“(The report) also drastically suggests that ‘incurables’ be quarantined in detention camps or areas when they could be directed in leading a more normal life,” the newspaper reports. “Brown appointed the committee in early 1953, comprising 47 members representing specialists in criminology and narcotics, as well as judicial, legal, educational, medicine, business, professions and labor representatives.”

The committee divided the narcotic offenders into three groups: the addict, the addict who peddles to supply or support his/her habit, and the professional peddler who isn’t an addict.

“While the experts and the committee abhor the purely commercial peddler of narcotics, they recognize the great majority of addicts and a large percentage of addict peddlers should be regarded as mental health problems, and that penalties meted out to those two groups should be on a mental health approach,” the report stated.

“Verbatim excerpts from 13 narcotic addicts and/or peddlers interviewed in San Quentin and Chino prisons” were included in the report.

Brown was later elected governor and continued to push for rehabilitation.

“The amendments add a new commitment procedure for addicts to make it conform with Brown’s idea for a rehabilitation program. Convicted addicts would get up to six months in a ‘southern medical center,’ tentatively planned at Norco in Riverside County, and long terms of close parole supervision,” reported the Desert Sun, March 10, 1961.

A few months later, Gov. Brown signed the measure into law.

“Senate Bill 81 … calls for the establishment of a narcotics detention, treatment and rehabilitation center to be operated by the Department of Corrections,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, May 11, 1961. “The state is considering the acquisition of a former Navy hospital at Norco. … Narcotics addicts would be received, segregated, confined, employed, educated, treated and rehabilitated in the hospital.”

Superintendent Roland Wood, left, headed CRC from 1962 until he retired in 1977. The first inmates arrived in 1963. (Photo courtesy UCLA.)

Roland Wood, California Rehabilitation Center

When California Rehabilitation Center at Norco opened in 1962, the facility was overseen by Superintendent Roland Wood. The center was the first of its kind in the nation.

“Now in over four years of operation, we have demonstrated that there is hope for the addict,” said Superintendent Wood, according to the Corona Daily Independent, Dec. 29, 1965 . “Addicts can be successfully treated in a non-punitive setting; close supervision in the community is an integral part of the treatment to assure that they have not returned to drug use; and if relapse occurs, they may be returned to the center for additional treatment prior to serious re-addiction or criminal activity.”

“California Rehabilitation Center helps addicts help themselves,” declared the The Press-Courier, Dec. 7, 1968.  “The center (treats) addiction … as a ‘social illness,’ rather than a criminal problem.”

“All of the people here were using heroin or its derivatives,” Superintendent Wood told the newspaper. “They aren’t here for just smoking marijuana.”

In 1968, the center housed more than 2,000 men and 350 women. The facility continued housing women until 2007, when they were transferred to female institutions.

Female CRC “residents,” as they were called, take part in a group therapy session, circa 1970.

“Statistics show 36 percent of the men and women released from the center for the first time, have remained drug-free within the community for more than a year. Twenty percent have remained in the community for over two years,” the paper reported.

“We feel a man achieves some success if he is able to force himself back into society for two years after avoiding responsibility for years,” said Bruce Martin, administrative assistant to Wood.

The institution was a pioneer in coordinating reentry services.

“Treatment involves group therapy, vocational training, marital and family counseling. Outpatient programs and half-way houses are provided to help residents bridge the gap between the institution and the community. An outpatient who returns to the center isn’t considered a failure. Wood said that many times a ‘cure’ is not affected until a third or fourth admittance. Sometimes, it’s never,” the paper reported.

A 29-year-old resident named “Sharon,” who had been admitted before, told how she got “hooked” on heroin. “I had a husband using heroin for a good number of years,” she said. “He was hospitalized many times. I became nervous from all the problems involving this and finally decided to forget about it and started using, too. I smoked marijuana for about six or seven years before I started using heroin. I’m very fortunate. I have a mother who stands by me. She takes care of my (four) children. They have carried the burden of the blow. It’s hard to judge how much they’ve suffered.”

After 15 years in his post, Wood retired.

“When Roland Wood leaves the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, he will be switching his involvement with drug addiction from treatment to education and prevention,” reported the Norco Pony Express, March 3, 1977.

“Wood, 61, will retire as superintendent of the Norco center for drug addicts on March 31, after serving as head of CRC since it opened in 1962. He said that he plans to continue to teach a class at Los Angeles State University designed to assist teachers in the prevention of narcotic, tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse.”

“We still have to be on the alert for a better way of dealing with men and women, their problems and their families,” Wood told the paper. “Building new institutions is not the answer.”

He said originally CRC took a one-size-fits-all approach to treating substance abuse but eventually he recognized the need to individualize programming.

“Many couldn’t take that intensive treatment program, and so we learned to tailor the program to their specific needs, offering education, vocational training and group therapy,” said Wood.

CRC’s superintendent was revolutionary in his approach.

“The institution concentrates on changing the residents’ attitudes and behavior while teaching them to handle their own problems, as opposed to confinement,” Wood told the paper.

Under his watch, CRC also started sending inmates out to work on the community’s parks.

“Wood said that as he leaves CRC he can be proud of the relationship now established with the local communities. For the past four years, the institution has provided a work force for use by the Norco Parks and Recreation Department for trail maintenance and other duties,” the paper reported.

The institution also provided inmates for fire protection.

“Sixty residents go out from here every day to work in fire prevention for the State Forestry Department,” said Wood. “They do work in fire prevention, fire trails and breaks and have gone all over the state to fight fires.”

In 2006, the magazine for the Society for the Study of Addiction published an interview with Dr. M. Douglas Anglin, founding director of the UCLA Drug Abuse Research Center. The researcher credits Wood with developing California’s program, serving as a blueprint for the program at the national level.

“California at that time was probably leading the nation in attempts to control addiction-related crime through carefully applied and extensive drug abuse treatment. The California experience with the Civil Addict Program started in 1961 after a year or two of very meticulous planning. Roland Wood, a major figure in the planning phase and the first Superintendent of CRC, has never been given enough historical credit for the program’s success, due in large part to his contributions,” Anglin said. “Later on in the 1960s, its implementation achievements and favorable anecdotal findings provided the justification and basis for the New York Civil Commitment Program, which grew to an extensive size. And to a similar federal effort when, in 1966, Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, which took civil commitment nationally.”

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