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  • Writer's pictureVeda Dean

Why is Ione a prison town? pt.2: Preston's failures

On March 11, 1889, the Sacramento Union reported the small town of Ione was celebrating the signing of Senate Bill 402 which officially designated Ione as the location for a state reform school. 

In 1894, the school welcomed its first inmates and reports said everything was running smoothly. 42 boys ranging from 8 years old to 17 lived within the walls and were under “perfect” discipline. The boys were taken to the park daily, had time to study, and learned skilled trades. So where did it all go wrong? 

Within the first year, the number of boys in the school increased to 170, and worsening conditions caused a great deal of controversy surrounding the superintendent. 

Preston Library Archives

The Amador Dispatch reported that the school was being run like an autocracy. Staff were being worked to the bone, resources were being wasted by management, and there was half as much food going into the school than there should have been. Nearly every staff member complained about Superintendent E. Carl Bank and eventually resigned within the same year. The school was left without a cook, heads of company, and no management other than the superintendent. 

Boys were being worked long hours without sufficient nutrition, had very little books or education, and only 30 were being taught a trade out of nearly 200. In the rain, the boys were forced to cram into a dark basement and sit quietly. The lack of resources at the school forced the boys to get into mischief, which made the school into an endless cycle of cruelty. 

Preston Library Archives

The superintendent was removed and conditions slowly began to improve. Throughout the 1900s and early 1910s, the school struggled with discipline almost as much as they struggled for resources. In 1915, the school established the “Preston School Republic” a student-run government with a president, congress, and representatives from each of the 12 companies acting as states. A “credit” system was also introduced-- to graduate, one must attain 7,000 credits and according to their good deeds, or bad ones, was a way to earn or lose credits. There was a daily allotment of credits to boys depending on which company they resided in-- which stood in a hierarchy of A through F. The most promising boys were in A, and those who attempted to escape were put in company F. This company had no privileges or holidays and earned the least amount of credits per day. The boys in the lower companies had lower chances of succeeding outside of the school and usually ended up back in the criminal justice system shortly after leaving. Two boys committed suicide because of the conditions of company F. In 1918, the board of trustees discontinued the student government program, deeming it a failure.

Researchers from the University of California were present at Preston for years evaluating the inmates to help segregate them by mental capabilities. They concluded that over 75% of inmates were “feebleminded” and the remaining 25% were “normal.” The testing criteria relied extensively on proficiency in the English language, so foreign-born boys and those from Spanish-speaking households were treated differently and were barred from participating in the student government. Boys from Hispanic backgrounds were identified as being more violent and were paroled significantly less often than their white counterparts for the same crime. 

The boys who were said to be the “lowest grade morons” were put into company M where they received the harshest treatment and closest supervision. Company M was disbanded due to the constant taunting by the other boys for being in the “Goofie Gang.” The Company M boys were sent to the Sonoma State Home for care and eventual sterilization. As overcrowding became a bigger issue at Preston, more inmates were being sent to Mental Institutions, a large portion being ethnic minorities. 

Preston Library Archives

Despite efforts by new superintendents to improve conditions for the wards, lack of state funding and chronic overcrowding prevented any changes from happening. Into the 1950s, conditions only got worse and Preston became a factory that produced criminals and contributed to racist eugenics research. 

Television News Media Coverage of the Preston School of Industry


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