Unlocking History

Photo Timeline: California Institution for Women

Drawing of California Institution for Women in 1930.
The caption reads, "California Institution for Women. State Department of Public Works, Division of Architecture, Sacramento." The Alfred Eichler sketch shows early plans for CIW at Tehachapi, 1930. (Photo: California State Archives.)

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

From the days of the first prison ships, CDCR has adapted to incarcerate females sentenced to state prison. Originally housed at San Quentin State Prison, the Women’s Ward went through many changes until the state’s first female prison was activated in 1933. In honor of Women’s History Month, Inside CDCR takes you inside California’s first women’s prison.

1930s: First women’s prison gets underway

Woman in flowery dress digs some dirt at future site of women's prison.
San Quentin Women’s Ward Matron Josephine Jackson turns a shovel of dirt at the site of California Institution for Women in 1931. (Photo: California State Archives.)
California Institution for Women early prison building.
The original Culver Hall at California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, circa 1931. The caption reads, “Note that Briggs Hall hadn’t been built yet. Also note the size of the trees then.” (CDCR file photo.)
California governor James Rolph speaks at the microphone while standing behind a California flag.
California Gov. James Rolph addresses the crowd at the 1932 dedication of California Institution for Women at Tehachapi. (Photo: UCLA.)
Three men attend dedication for women's prison at Tehachapi.
Dedication at California Institution for Women, 1932. At right is San Quentin Warden James “Big Jim” Holohan. (CDCR file photo.)
Fence and snowy hills surround prison entrance at Tehachapi.
The original entrance to California Institution for Women, circa 1932. (CDCR file photo.)
Two men stand near brick wall and doors.
From left are CIW Deputy Warden Uriah A. Smith and Guard Archie Thornton in 1933. (Photo: UCLA.) Note: Correctional Officers were classified as Guards prior to 1944.
Buildings with a dirt road going into the compound.
California Institution for Women, 1933. (Photo: UCLA.)
Prison matron holds a telephone in a women's prison.
Matron Alva M. Brittain shows off the new cottage concept in this 1933 newspaper photo taken at the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi. (Photo: UCLA.)
Woman handles garbage by drive a team of two horses and a large wagon.
Garbage detail, 1937, CIW Tehachapi. (CDCR file photo.)
Female inmate uses a printing press at California Institution for Women.
An inmate works a printing press at CIW, 1938. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
A fair at Tehachapi women's prison in 1938.
“Here is a view of the Tehachapi fair, showing the decorated entrance to the compound. Each prisoner was given $2 in homemade money to spend at the various booths and concessions. They ate popcorn, cakes and other dainties they had made themselves, and (had fun) watching vaudeville acts, Punch and Judy shows and playing bingo games.” Sept. 24, 1938. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
CIW official holds canned goods.
Myrtle Elder, who oversaw 15 female inmates working the farm at CIW, holds canned goods made by the inmates, 1938. At one time, she served as the acting Warden. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Women play tennis at women's prison.
Inmates play tennis at CIW-Tehachapi, circa 1939. (CDCR file photo.)

1940s: Inmates help with war effort

Two female inmates hold a large U.S. flag.
CIW staff show off the work of inmates who sewed U.S. flags and mosquito nets as part of the war effort in 1943. (CDCR file photo.)

Much like the men’s prisons in California, inmates at CIW pitched in to help with the war effort. “Patriotic fervor runs extremely high in most correctional institutions for women,” according to the 1944 report by the U.S. War Production Board. “Special mention might be made of the manufacture of mosquito bed nets and pillow cases at the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi.” As shown in the above photo, CIW inmates also made U.S. flags.

1950s: Turning point for CIW

Female prison inmates watch a small television.
Female inmates watch TV in Culver Cottage, CIW, 1950. (CDCR file photo.)
CIW inmate works a loom.
An inmate works the loom at CIW, circa 1950. (CDCR file photo.)
Women camping outside unsafe prison buildings in 1952.
An earthquake in 1952 forced CIW’s inmates to be temporarily housed in tents. Later that year, they moved to their new prison at Corona. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Tents line a small roadway.
Inmates were moved to tents for their own safety after the 1952 earthquake. (CDCR file photo.)
Female inmates set type and work in a printing plant.
“The California Institution for Women in Corona has its own printing plant. Here, women publish the monthly newspaper, ‘The Clarion.’ They set the type by hand and run it off on a flat-bed press. They also print high school commencement programs, invitations, etc. Photograph dated July 10, 1954.” (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Women work in a warehouse full of sewing machines.
California Institution for Women in Corona’s industrial sewing room, 1954. “Among the many items they make are their own clothes and also clothes for men at San Quentin and Chino prisons. Other buildings house ceramics shops, laundry and school classrooms.” (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Women inmates in a living room setting at California Institution for Women in Corona.
The CIW honor cottage also housed inmates pending parole release, 1954. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Female inmates check out the library at CIW.
In 1954, the library at CIW in Corona held 5,000 books. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)

1960s: Rehabilitation continues

Female inmate works on another person's hair.
“Inmates learn how to do hairdressing at the California Institution for Women in Corona, March 24, 1962.” (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.)
Inmates paints in a prison art class.
Art classes help inmates express emotions in non-violent ways, such as this CIW inmate in the late 1950s or early 1960s. (CDCR file photo.)

1970s: Learning job skills

Three women practice hair styling skills on three other women at California Institution for Women.
The cosmetology program at CIW teaches inmates skills they can use to acquire jobs after release. (CDCR file photo, circa 1970s.)

1980s & ’90s: Technology catches up with incarceration

An inmate works on a computer while an instructor assists.
Educational programs offered at CIW in 1991 included PLATO, a “computer-based education program focused on the three basic areas of math, reading and language. … Students can access (the) terminal display screen which is similar to an ordinary television screen,” according to a CIW booklet produced at the time. (CDCR file photo.)
Three women stand around a work desk smiling.
Simply identified as “Connie Fillon, CIW Education Supervisor, January 1991.” (CDCR file photo.)

2000s: Modernized facility offers education, job training

Female inmate learns computer skills.
Modern computer classes are offered at CIW. (CDCR file photo.)
The California Institution for Women as seen from the air.
California Institution for Women, as it stands today. (CDCR file photo.)
A man teaches a female inmate building maintenance skills.
Today’s inmates at CIW learn job skills to help them succeed when they are released. Here, inmates learn Building Maintenance. (CDCR file photo.)
Female inmates learn electrical building maintenance skills as they study a wall of wires.
Female inmates learn job skills at CIW. (CDCR file photo.)
Books can be seen in the foreground while inmates study in a classroom.
Educational classes allow inmate students to earn GEDs, diplomas and degrees. These are in addition to trade certificates and job skills. (CDCR file photo.)
A rock sign says California Institution for Women, Frontera, Calif.
California Institution for Women has evolved from its early days as the Women’s Ward Department at San Quentin to its current rehabilitative model. (CDCR file photo.)