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In 1894, the Preston School of Industry opened its doors and begun a 119-year legacy of maltreatment. Located in Ione, Amador County, this archaic institution was built based on a 19th Century model of congregate reform schools. It soon developed a reputation for appalling physical conditions and extreme brutality by staff members. By 1895, allegations arose of ill-treatment, malnourishment and overworking of youth. 

In the early-1900’s, several newspapers reported foul and degrading conditions as overworked staff members began resigning, disgusted with the mismanagement and severe punishment meted out on the wards by staff supervisors.* 

A series of reports in the 1980’s condemned the practices within the former CYA, now Division of Juvenile Facilities (e.g., Steve Lerner, Bodily Harm: The Pattern of Fear and Violence at the California Youth Authority (1986)), highlighting Preston as badly designed and overcrowded” (p.21). Sexual abuse, violent assaults, and suicide attempts were commonplace, and within the open dormitory setting staff could provide no protection for the wards. Gang activity thrived at Preston, as vulnerable youth sought out the safety of affiliation rather than become prey to more sophisticated wards, or suffer the atrocious 23-hour isolation cells that served as protective custody. 

In 2003, after a string of suicides and horrendous use of force by staff on wards, the Prison Law Office filed a suit condemning the CYA for unconstitutional and egregious conditions in the facilities, and demanding reform. National experts described Preston’s lock-up units as deplorable” and dungeon-like. Filthy, dank rooms coved with vermin, blood, and feces where youths were confined for 23-hours a day, with one hour spent shackled in a cage for exercise. The state conceded and signed a consent decree in 2004, laying out remedial plans to reform its entire system. 

Since the Farrell Litigation reform efforts have been underway, DJF has made improvements to Preston’s staffing ratios, institutional culture, and provision of services. By now however, the aging facilities are beyond repair. The crumbling physical buildings have been condemned and the lawsuit requires entirely new structures, a cost the state cannot afford. Meanwhile despite the DJF staffs’ best efforts, violence and gang activity has raged on amongst the wards, failure rates remain high, and rehabilitation is nowhere in sight. 

It is too little, too late. 

Preston Youth Correctional Facility officially closes its gates on June 302011

* An extensive early history of Preston can be found in John F. Lafferty’s The Preston School of Industry, A Centennial History 1894 – 1994, 2d Ed. (1997). For more information also visit the Preston Castle Foundation website.