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  • Writer's pictureVeda Dean

Why is Ione a prison town? pt.1 : A History of juvenile justice in California

Growing up as a third-generation Ionian, I was surrounded by people who relied on the State Prison. My uncle worked there until his retirement a few years ago, and my Grandfather worked at Pine Grove camp until he retired before starting our family business. The Preston castle is the pride of our town, appearing on our town’s official seal, PR materials, and an entire golf course community named after it. I attended weddings, benefit dinners, and the famous haunted house in October at the castle, never knowing why it was the center of Ione’s economy. I was once proud to represent my town as Miss Ione-- boasting about the historic castle and Ione’s significance in the gold rush, but the deeper I dig into its history, the more I wonder if Ione is something to be proud of. 

The culture of Ione as a prison town hasn't changed since the 1890s, so I took to the books to find out why that is, and I found that the Preston school was instrumental in the development of California’s criminal justice system.

The Preston School of Industry was erected from a set of white American ideals that punished lifestyles that didn't fit the standard, yet lacked the care, effort, and resources to achieve what it was meant to do, resulting in generations of traumatized and chronically institutionalized men, particularly of color. The Preston school was a result of and contributed to the intense racialization of the California criminal justice system. 

When the US federal government seized control over Alta California from Mexico, another opportunity arose for white America to expand westward and build a new economy. The US government offered settlers cheap land to incentivize urban growth in the new state. The discovery of gold that inspired the California gold rush was the tipping point for thousands to flock to California from around the world for the opportunity of wealth from the gold rush. There was only one obstacle for these settlers, the people who were already there. 

For years, California Mexican and native communities took care of their unruly youths in a family-type setting, relying on community resources, godparents, the church, and community leaders to punish and reform the young members of their communities. However, California was growing at an unprecedented rate into the 1850s, and local governments did not have the means or infrastructure to manage their rapid population growth. Californians started to report juvenile crime as being out of control in their communities. Local governments then looked to the state and federal governments to establish criminal institutions, this is when San Quentin State Prison and Folsom Prison were built. 

Into the 1860s, Spanish speakers were immigrating to California at an increased rate, and as racial tensions grew among white Californians, the inmate populations in San Quentin and Folsom overrepresented Mexican and Mexican Americans by over double their population. At this time, youths were being incarcerated more than older generations were. A lot of the time, they were put into these institutions under the very condition of being poor, homeless, or orphaned. These youths were being sent to San Quentin, which was a crude excuse for an institution. Inmates as young as 12 were subject to back-breaking labor and horrible living conditions under the guise of learning a trade.

On a similar note, Native Americans in California were seen as a problem to the state, so they were criminalized under the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians which made it illegal for any native person who was unemployed to loiter, engage in indecent activity, or be homeless. If found guilty, the Native person would be sold into indentured servitude to the highest bidder. The highest priority for the state was to control Native children, and minority children in general. Native children convicted of any crime under the age of 14 were tried as adults and sent to a state prison. By enforcing these harsh rules, the newly growing state could profit from native land by mass incarcerating the people who lived there. Until Native American boarding schools were brought to California, this was how the state managed the “Indian Problem.”


In the 1870s and '80s, San Quentin and Folsom were overcrowded with juveniles, so new legislation took to solving the problem. What they found is that a large concentration of juvenile inmates aged 14-16, and their developmental needs exceeded what the state prison system could offer them. The state’s solution was not to investigate the reason why these children were in institutions, ignoring the structural and societal problems in California of poverty, racism, and lack of resources in communities of color, and instead looked to criminalize youths' behavior that was outside white middle-class standards. They ultimately wanted short-term results that saved the state money and also built a working class of skilled laborers. The reform schools would not only rehabilitate delinquent children but also house children with “low morals” who are supposedly at risk of becoming criminals in the future, a feature you can imagine was highly racialized and abused in communities of color. 

illustration of San Quentin

The reform school seemed like a win/win for all parties involved, the state finally had an institution that prevented “would-be” criminals from ever doing crime, and also rehabilitated juvenile delinquents to contribute to the economy and to serve in wars. There was tremendous support for these schools, and immediately after their establishment, children stopped being incarcerated in San Quentin and Folsom, with the exception of juveniles receiving life or death sentences. 

The state of California upon planning these reform schools, looked to the advanced and highly successful models on the East Coast and Europe, however, they did not follow them. Instead, they built the Whittier State School in 1891, an archaic institution that was less a vocational school than it was a haven for corruption, abuse, and neglect. Under Senate Bill 402, a similar school was built in Ione to serve the Sacramento and Central Valleys: the Preston School of Industry. 


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