Tag Archives: California Institution for Men

Inside Chino Men’s Prison in the ‘60s and ‘70s, by J. S.

29 Aug

J. S. was an educator for many years and now actively supports children’s and young adult literature and literacy. Cooking is a passion of hers.

In the late 1960s to early 1970s I was a frequent visitor to Chino Prison – the California Institution for Men. The husband of a good friend of mine was the recreation director there, and the first time I went there it was to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Yep!…you read it right – the LA Phil – directed by a very young Zubin Mehta. Joe (my friend’s husband) had been a jazz musician in his earlier years, and he had a lot of connections in the music industry. So in his position as recreation director for the prison, he was able to bring incredible entertainment to “his guys,” and when someone notable was scheduled to perform, Joe and his wife would invite me to join them for the show. Over a couple of years I had the great pleasure of seeing the Count Basie Band; B.B. King; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and several lesser-known local musical groups. And I got to meet the players also – what a deal! I still have an autographed black and white photo of B.B. King from when I met him after his appearance at Chino.


[Note:  California Institution for Men (CIM) is a male-only state prison located in the city of Chino, San Bernardino County, California. It is often colloquially referenced as “Chino.” Source: Wikipedia]

The first time I went to Chino, probably in 1969 or ‘70, I was amazed at the whole “vibe” of the place. Aside from the very tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire that surrounded it, and aside from the need to show ID and open your purse to the guards at the reception area (this was during the pre-electronic scanning era), you felt more like you were on a college campus than at a prison.

The shows were held in the gym, and it was amazing to me to see so many young (and a few older), well-groomed, handsome men of all races milling around, chatting and joking with each other. I couldn’t help but wonder what they done to put them in this situation. Everything was very friendly and relaxed. Other than the fact that they all wore the prison uniform of jeans and blue work shirts and that there were always guards in uniform walking around, you almost forgot that you were actually in a prison.

The California Institution for Men at Chino opened in 1941, the third state prison to be built after San Quentin and Folsom. It had been designed as the first minimum security institution – a “prison without walls” – for the least serious and seemingly nonviolent offenders. Most of the inmates there had been convicted of things like possession of marijuana, embezzlement, being accessories in serious crimes, or (according to them) they had been “framed.” They lived in different “units,” which were actually dormitories – not cells – and they basically had free access to all parts of the “campus” (which is what it was called then) during the day as they moved from different jobs to group or individual counseling sessions to meals to the gym or the library or the TV room or the basketball or baseball courts. The basic premise seemed to be rehabilitation – giving the inmates skills and positive feelings that would better enable them to return to normal life upon their release and hopefully to never become incarcerated again. There was a bed check each night, and they’d better be there at that moment – or else! They pretty much always were.

On one of my visits for a show, Joe introduced me to one of his inmate assistants – a young guy named Ernie – tall, handsome, soft-spoken, with a great smile. We spent a lot of time together talking and listening to the music, and when the show was over Ernie asked if he could write to me. I agreed, and so began some sort of a “relationship,” which started through letters and occasional phone calls and which developed into regular visits that continued for a couple of years.

I began visiting Ernie at Chino regularly on Saturdays or Sundays, and sometimes both. The 40-mile drive from my house in L.A. didn’t seem like that big of a deal because a) I was younger (!); and b) the freeways were waaaaaayyyyy less crowded than they are now!

After parking the car I had to go through the reception area, where I presented my ID, had my purse and all containers checked, was given a visitor’s badge and then sent to the visiting area. The visiting area was a vast lawn surrounded by buildings and trees, which contained many picnic tables, a playground for kids with swings, slides, etc., and some fast-food vending machines along one side. At first we would just get chips and sodas from the machines, but that was not making me very happy, so I decided to bring a picnic meal each time I came. (I have always loved to cook and prepare food!) These would consist of different sandwiches, salads, homemade chili or beef stew in a thermos when the weather was cooler (in those days there was an actual winter when it was cool), maybe homemade cookies or delicacies from my local bakery. Needless to say, Ernie got very spoiled food-wise!

We would sit at the table and eat and chat about many things: our lives, our families, music, TV shows, sports, and occasionally politics or the news – which weren’t his favorite subjects. There was minimal opportunity for any kind of physical contact – a quick hug when I came and left and maybe a bit of hand-holding. The guards were always there, and often we saw them approaching couples who were getting a bit “carried away,” and saying, “OK – break it up!”

Ernie would point out different guys to me and tell me what they had done to end up there. These included several well-known jazz musicians and a couple of famous TV actors who were there because of drugs, some major “Mafia” kingpins, and several older guys who had been convicted for various “white collar crimes.” He would occasionally introduce me to some of these folks; everyone was friendly.

There were families – moms with kids of all ages – enjoying picnic time or playground time with their dads. That was heartbreaking for me. On one hand I was glad the moms and kids could spend time with the dads, but on the other hand it was just so sad that it had to be there, even though the surroundings were seemingly quite pleasant. I wondered what effect it had on the kids and how things would play out for them in the future.

There wasn’t a huge gang presence like there is in today’s prisons. Everything was racially integrated, and everyone got along. There were some “bad eggs,” of course, but they were given the opportunity to straighten up or else they were sent to Quentin or Folsom where things were a lot tighter. There didn’t seem to be a feeling of tension at all.

When I read or hear about what is going on in California prisons today, I am appalled. The idea of rehabilitation seems to have been thrown out the window, and the recidivism rate is ridiculous. And the three-strikes law has placed a lot of men in prison for the rest of their lives, adding to the overcrowding problems.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but my memories of Chino in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s make me believe that they had the right idea then, and that today something is terribly wrong.