Prisoners escaped from women’s prison in Chino just 4 days after it opened – San Bernardino Sun

It took only four days for the first prisoner to escape after the new Chino women’s prison opened in 1952.

A second prisoner at the new California Institution for Women headed for the hills two days later.

Admittedly, it was no easy task in 1952 to open a new prison on the fly, especially with inmates escaping almost as quickly as they would arrive.

Seventy years ago, CIW really wasn’t very secure because it simply wasn’t finished. Its rushed opening was caused by a 7.2 earthquake on July 21 that rocked the Central Valley, wrecking much of the original women’s prison in Tehachapi.

In that Kern County town, a couple hundred inmates, state staff and a squad of Marines, assigned to provide protection, were forced to camp outside on the lawn for weeks after the quake. As soon as possible, state officials began moving small numbers of prisoners to the partially completed prison at Chino.

And when those first 20 prisoners arrived, it didn’t take long to notice shortages of just about everything — ideal conditions for a quick exit.

Two other women escaped August 18 by jumping into a state pickup truck and driving through an unguarded gate, reported the Associated Press wire service. “Usually there is a guard at the gate but the staff was still partly at Tehachapi, and the rest thinly scattered here,” explained Superintendent Alma Holzschub. She did say, “The girls have been very fine and cooperative during the transfer.”

The master of escaping was Gene Clarida, who was locked up for passing bad checks. The year before, she briefly got out of Tehachapi only to be quickly recaptured. Her escape August 18 from Chino came the day after she arrived. She got as far away as the East Coast during more than a month of freedom before being arrested in a police raid on a Chicago hotel.

Back at Chino, Clarida escaped over a wall with two others in December only to be picked up in San Diego, reported the Pomona Progress-Bulletin on Jan. 2, 1953. In July, she was committed to Patton State Hospital only to steal a car and disappear, perhaps for good.

The most prominent and notorious of the early escapees was Rose Marie Birdsall, 26, who was imprisoned for manslaughter after the 1951 killing of her brother-in-law in San Antonio Canyon, north of Upland. On Jan. 1, 1953, she and fellow prisoner Dorothy Woods “walked through a hole in the fence” at Chino and disappeared, said the Sun newspaper on Jan. 11.

Freedom from Chino for the pair ended after 10 days when they were captured in Monterey Park. A judge later added a year to Birdsall’s prison sentence for her escapes at Chino and Tehachapi.

The oddest conclusion of an escape from CIW was that of convicted murderer Annette Hernandez, who disappeared from the prison in May 1972.  It was not until 2002, 30 years after the original escape, that coroner officials matched her fingerprints with those of a Bellflower woman who died by suicide in Los Angeles County in 1985.

Despite the frustration of escapes, state prison officials were undoubtedly relieved the new Chino prison was close to completion when the quake wrecked Tehachapi.

It was in 1947 that Chino had been selected to be a site for the prison. Tehachapi was targeted for closure because it was too far into the mountains to provide adequate medical care and its remote location made it difficult to find women staff members willing to work there.

The Chino Champion of Aug. 27, 1948, reported the state purchased 115 acres from Chino rancher E.H. Phillips for a price later revealed as $79,650. The area was picked for its rich farm land – both CIW and the nearby men’s prison years ago had extensive farm programs.

On Nov. 19, 1951, the cornerstone of the new Chino prison was laid in a ceremony with state officials with the goal for completion the following October, said the Progress-Bulletin. When it opened, the prison included a clothing factory where “inmates manufacture shirts, shorts, mattresses and handkerchiefs for use in other state institutions,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10, 1952.

Throughout CIW’s history, there’s been a never-ending problem with its name. When it opened, it was on unincorporated land in San Bernardino County, just north of the Santa Ana River and the county line. Corona, over in Riverside County, was actually closer than downtown Chino, so officials chose to call the prison “California Institution for Women at Corona,” even if it wasn’t in Corona.

Corona officials eventually objected to it being identified as home of a prison when it wasn’t, so prison staff invented a name for the area in January 1962. It became known as Frontera, which is Spanish for “new beginning,” according to its Superintendent Iverne Carter.

And that hardly cleared up things. Frontera rarely appears on any map – so to get to the prison you didn’t go to Corona, where you sent mail, and didn’t go to Frontera, which couldn’t be found, nor did you go to Chino, then about 4 miles north.

I remember years ago at the newspaper getting a phone call from an exasperated reporter from another paper confused over a place called Frontera and a prison address that wasn’t in the right county. It took a while to clear up things for her.

Mercifully, the city of Chino in later years annexed land that included CIW, which in theory should have solved its location problem.

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