California Institution for Women trades San Quentin’s cells for cottages

By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Historic photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series exploring the history of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)

A prison nestled at the base of the mountains near Tehachapi has gone through many changes, including names, over the decades since the Department’s third institution was constructed in 1932. Today, the facility is known as the California Correctional Institution and houses men, but its original purpose was to rehabilitate women.

This artist's rendering is believed to depict the Waban.

This artist’s rendering is believed to depict the Waban.

The history of women in State prisons goes back to the original floating prison ship the Waban, the predecessor of San Quentin State Prison.

According to the San Quentin Prison Museum, from the first day in 1852 until 1927, women were housed the same as men. “In early days (women) lived aboard the (prison ship Waban) and performed the chores of washing, laundering and preparing the meals while men went to shore to build and develop the prison site,” museum literature states.

As reported in an earlier story on San Quentin, according to folklore, the Waban arrived at Point Quentin in July 1852 with about 50 convicts. On Oct. 12, 1852, a “contract was let for the first cell building,” according to reports. The cell building was completed in 1854. Inmates slept on the ship at night and worked to construct the prison during the day.

In 1859, the building commonly referred to as the old Captain’s Porch and Women’s Department was constructed and the women occupied the second floor of this building, according to the San Quentin Prison Museum. This continued until a new building was finished in 1927, which contained 104 cells.

The Women's Department at San Quentin was eventually moved to a branch facility in Tehachapi in 1933.

The Women’s Department at San Quentin was eventually moved to a branch facility in Tehachapi in 1933. This photo most likely dates to the mid-to-late 1920s.

Women inmates transition out of San Quentin

By the 1920s, attitudes toward housing female inmates changed and a 1929 legislative bill approved a separate women’s facility.

Rose Wallace, chair of the board of trustees for the California Institution for Women, praised state senators on their site selection in a May 29, 1931, edition of Sausalito News.

“The committee left the ranch praising the property and Senator Duval expressed himself as of the opinion that we purchased the property (from the Brite family) for less than it was worth,” she wrote in an open letter. “This committee reported to the Senator on May 5th and, quoting from the Senate Journal of that day, they said, among other things … ‘By reason of the conformation of the surrounding country, the site is secluded from intrusion and away from highways (and) no better site could be selected in the State.'”

The Tehachapi women’s prison was built and opened in 1932, but the inmates weren’t transferred for almost another year-and-a-half. Since the women had been sentenced to serve time at San Quentin State Prison, they couldn’t legally be transferred to the new institution.

“The buildings stood, ready but unused,” according to a CDCR document on the history of California Institution for Women. “Finally, the Legislature passed a bill making the new institution a branch of San Quentin Prison.”

Warden James B. Holohan and Dr. Leo Stanley escorted the first busload of 30 women to Tehachapi. The last of the San Quentin women were transferred in November 1933.

A look inside Tehachapi

The women were housed in cottages at Tehachapi, rather than traditional cells. The three cottages were all two-story buildings. The two smaller cottages, called Davis and Willard, were complete living units. Each had its own kitchen, dining room, living room, bathrooms and supervisor’s quarters, according to the CDCR document on the history of CIW.

“While the cottages were made as home-like and comfortable as possible, and were a far cry from San Quentin, the women were under a very strict set of rules,” the document states. “The supervisor lived in the cottage, controlled movement in and out the front door and watched over each woman’s behavior. Bed time was at 9 p.m. and most women were locked in their rooms at night.”

In 1935, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a longtime reporter in the Los Angeles area, penned a series on life in the women’s prison.

The reporter referred to the Tehachapi facility as a “home for forgotten women.”

“Ruler of this city surrounded by a high wire fence is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works directly under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, Warden James B. Holohan,” Underwood wrote at the time. “For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged ‘bad’ and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.”

Underwood described daily life in the state’s only female prison.

“Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider. The buildings which comprise the prison group are an administration building, detention building and two cottages.

A newspaper clipping shows how female inmates will be dressed.

A newspaper clipping shows how female inmates will be dressed.

“All work in the prison is volunteer – none compulsory – and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best. Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking and table serving, many secretarial and some even beauty work.

“There is no official chef at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks even to the extent of making all of the bread that is used by the inmates

“Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be seen leaving the various buildings in which they are housed, (headed) for the rabbitry, the chicken yard and the barn yard where there are several cows to be milked.

“Each (day) goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs – a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their transgressions of the law, yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.”

The book “Preparing Convicts for Law-Abiding Lives: The Pioneering Penology of Richard A. McGee” also goes into some detail about Tehachapi.

“The original California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, at an isolated mountain site in Kern County, was designed to hold 150 women in cottages instead of cell blocks, with each unit having its own sleeping quarters, kitchen and dining room. After 1949, it averaged 300 prisoners, and by 1952 it had over 400,” writes author Daniel Glaser in the 1995 publication.

Tehachapi used a classification system in which the women worked their way up from Probationary to Standard and finally to Honor status. The classification determined which privileges were earned, the jobs available and how much commissary allowance they were provided.

Regular jobs included laundry, grounds crew, farm crew, clothing factory, hospital, Administration Building, food services and other places. Women with Honor or Standard classifications were offered more choice jobs.

What’s in a name? Facility re-named CIW in 1937

Officially known as the Women’s Department at San Quentin at Tehachapi, the ties to San Quentin were dropped in 1937 and the facility was renamed the California Institution for Women.

By then, Tehachapi became synonymous with female criminals.

  • The 1941 film, “The Maltese Falcon,” makes reference to the prison. Humphrey Bogart tells Mary Astor, Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then.”
  • The 1944 film, “Double Indemnity,” used the line, “Then there was a case of a guy that was found shot. His wife said he was cleaning a gun and his stomach got in the way. All she collected was a three-to-10 stretch in Tehachapi.”
  • In 1947, the film “Out of the Past” featured a character using the phrase, “Up there in the women’s prison in Tehachapi.”
  • In 1949, the film “Criss Cross” found a female character saying, “That’s right. Send me to the women’s prison at Tehachapi.”
  • Even a few episodes of the 1950s TV show “Perry Mason” mentioned the famous female prison.

Actress receives commuted sentence

Actress Madge Meredith was sentenced to five-years-to-life in prison for the alleged 1947 kidnapping and robbery of her manager, Nicholas Gianaclis.

Her Hollywood story began when she was discovered working behind a commissary counter in 1944, landing her first role in “Take it or Leave it.”

In 1946, she appeared in “The Falcon’s Adventure” and “Trail Street.” The following year, her movie contract was cancelled and, in desperate need to secure her home, she borrowed money from Gianaclis.

Madge Meredith was living the Hollywood dream when she found herself embroiled in an ownership dispute over her home.

Madge Meredith was living the Hollywood dream when she found herself embroiled in an ownership dispute over her home.

According to Meredith, her manager had her sign what he claimed were mortgage papers. Those papers actually gave him ownership of the home. Feeling betrayed, she sued.

Gianaclis claimed the actress and two ruffians lured him to the house, then kidnapped him and a friend. The victims claimed they were beaten and robbed, but were able to escape to a nearby home and call police.

She was found guilty.

“I know in my own heart I’m innocent of any crime and someday, someone will believe the truth about what I say,” she said after her conviction.

Meredith was sentenced to serve time at CIW but a followup investigation poked holes in the trial testimony of Gianaclis.

In 1951, Gov. Earl Warren commuted her sentence to time served. He said he hoped Meredith would be able to continue in her chosen profession as an actress.

After her release, Meredith successfully sued to reclaim her house and dove back into acting, appearing in TV shows and films before retiring in the mid-1960s.

Gianaclis, an immigrant, was denied U.S. Citizenship, based partly on what authorities believed to be perjured testimony at the Meredith trial.

A 1951 Los Angeles Times photo shows Madge Meredith celebrating her release outside the gates of the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi.

A 1951 Los Angeles Times photo shows Madge Meredith celebrating her release outside the gates of the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi.

A shift in the entire prison system

An issue of California Law Review, dated September 1944, extensively examines the 1944 California Prison Reorganization Statute which established formation of the Department of Corrections. The new department centralized the various functions of the state’s correctional system, including the women’s prison at Tehachapi.

“The Board of Trustees of the California Institution for Women is made part of the Department of Corrections, and two of its women members are placed upon the Board of Corrections,” per the reorganization. “All powers … are transferred to the Department of Corrections (to) operate and manage the women’s prison,” the Law Review publication states.

In 1944, prison population was at a low, but it began to steadily climb and then rise rapidly at Tehachapi.

In 1947, the state Legislature authorized moving the institution to “a more suitable site,” according to the 1964 issue of “Correctional Review.”

“A new larger institution was completed near Corona in 1952 and opened somewhat prematurely when the Tehachapi institution was severely shaken by an earthquake, July 21, 1952,” the article states. “After a period of living in tents, the women moved into their new quarters in August. On the day of the quake, the population count was 417 in a plant originally built for 150.”

Female inmates at the original California Institution for Women were housed in tents following the 1952 earthquake.

Female inmates at the original California Institution for Women were housed in tents following the 1952 earthquake.

Tehachapi facility jolts to a stop

In 1952, after 20 years as a women’s prison, the facility came to a halt.

At 4:52 a.m. on July 21, 1952, a massive earthquake measuring an estimated 7.7 on the Richter scale rocked the community and the prison. Some estimates peg the quake at 5.3 on the Richter. Regardless of the intensity, it devastated the historic downtown area of Tehachapi and gave a hard hit to the women’s prison.

The quake spelled the end of the Tehachapi facility as a women’s prison.

According to a 2012 Tehachapi News article commemorating the anniversary of the natural disaster, “The … California Institution for Women … had about 417 inmates and they were moved to the newly constructed prison … due to damage from the earthquake. Each inmate was later given a month off her sentence as a ‘good conduct’ reward.”

Book author Glaser writes, “The new California Institution for Women opened … at Corona, adjacent to Chino, and was architecturally similar to … Tehachapi but much larger.”

The original Tehachapi facility went through extensive rebuilding and became the California Correctional Institution in 1954, housing men.

Historical timeline

  • 1852: Waban, a state-contracted prison ship, sailed to Point San Quentin. State purchased 20 acres of land for construction of a permanent prison. Construction of first cell block began, using inmate labor. The inmates slept on the ship at night and worked during the day.
  • 1859: Women housed in second floor of old Captain’s Porch and Women’s Department at San Quentin.
  • 1927: New 104-cell women’s building constructed at San Quentin.
  • 1929: Legislative bill approved a separate women’s department near Tehachapi for the San Quentin branch of the Women’s Department.
  • 1932: San Quentin branch of the Women’s Department at Tehachapi constructed.
  • 1933: The last of the San Quentin female prisoners transferred to Tehachapi.
  • 1937: The Women’s Department of San Quentin at Tehachapi was severed and it became the California Institution for Women.
  • 1944: Senate Bill No. 1 passed, establishing the Department of Corrections. Richard A. McGee named Director of Corrections by California Governor Earl G. Warren. Bill placed the California Institution for Women under the direction of the newly formed Department.
  • 1952: Massive earthquake forced closure of facility, ending 20 years of service as a women’s prison. The women are transferred to the new California Institution for Women in Corona the same year.
  • 1954: Facility rebuilt and repurposed as a branch of the California Institution for Men.
  • 1964: Declared a separate facility from California Institution for Men and renamed California Correctional Institution.
  • 1967: A new medium security unit was opened.