Obituaries, Unlocking History

Late AW Richard Nelson saved prison history

Three photos of Richard Nelson show him in 1959, 1969 and 2019.
Retired Associate Warden R.A. "Dick" Nelson started at Folsom Prison in 1959, shown upper left, was a San Quentin lieutenant in 1969, shown lower left, and helped create the San Quentin Museum, as he's seen in 2019. He passed away Jan. 26, 2021.

When Richard “Dick” Nelson began his career in corrections, President Dwight Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office while Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was the top song on the radio. The year was 1959.

Nelson worked for the department during times of upheaval and violence, becoming a key figure who quelled San Quentin’s deadly 1971 George Jackson riot at San Quentin.

The longtime corrections leader passed away Jan. 26, 2021.

Nelson’s career interest began early

As a college student in Minnesota, Nelson said he never gave a thought to law enforcement until he hitched a ride. The driver was a parole officer and they spent the time discussing the officer’ career. “He outlined the several job classifications of correctional work,” Nelson recounted in his book “Into Harm’s Way.” The driver’s obvious pride in his work appealed to the young Nelson.

“A career in corrections became my goal thanks, in part, to my conversation with the Minnesota parole officer,” Nelson recalled. Lastly, he credited his older brother Lynn, a retired U.S. Marine who was an officer at Folsom State Prison, with the final push he needed.

Lynn was 22 years older. His second career started in 1955 when he became a correctional officer at Folsom. Four years later, at age 21, Dick Nelson joined his brother as a correctional officer.

There was no academy in those days. Training at the time consisted of a five-day orientation, a six-month probationary period of rotating shifts at the institution, and on-the-job guidance offered by veteran officers.

Folsom Warden Robert Heinze personally interviewed Nelson a few months after he started.

“If you see something that needs doing, take the responsibility and do it. The prison will run smoother and safer for it,” Heinze told Nelson, who said he took the advice and applied it across his career. A few years later, he promoted to sergeant.

Richard Nelson heads to California Rehabilitation Center

In late 1966, Nelson promoted to lieutenant at California Rehabilitation Center at Norco. The mission was completely different from Folsom.

“When I reported for duty, (it) was a co-ed 2,400-bed prison for convicted drug addicts,” Nelson wrote.

When a lieutenant position was available at San Quentin, he quickly applied.

“(My wife and I) set our sights on the Bay Area and never looked back. I reported for duty Aug. 1, 1968,” he wrote. “As a stalwart history buff, I was excited to start a new chapter in my career at this icon of correctional institutions.”

San Quentin changes everything

Lt. Richard “Dick” Nelson oversaw the Adjustment Center, the site of one of San Quentin’s deadliest riots.

On Saturday, Aug. 21, 1971, Nelson was on prison grounds at home. Hearing three gunshots, he ran to his front porch. The first shot, he said, was from a pistol. The other two were most likely staff rifle shots. The visual alarm atop the prison was flashing, indicating a major problem. Nelson quickly put on his uniform and rushed toward the danger.

When the dust settled, six people were dead including Sgt. Jere Graham and Correctional Officers Frank LeDeleon and Paul Krasenes.

According to Nelson, the bloody riot resulted in 20 custody staff quitting their jobs. Many others transferred to different institutions.

Returning to work at the Adjustment Center was too much for Nelson. After the riot, he transferred to San Quentin’s Security Squad. “I needed something different after the August riot. For my mental well-being, as a way to decompress, I needed a change of scenery,” he wrote.

Richard Nelson later in life

Believing history needed to be preserved, he helped establish the San Quentin Museum.

He retired in 1998 as an Associate Warden, capping a 40-year correctional career.

Post-retirement, Nelson proudly volunteered at the museum he helped create, eager to share his historical knowledge. He researched San Quentin back to its days as a floating prison barge, frequently acting as a resource for Inside CDCR and the media.

“It’s a wonderful experience (having worked for corrections) and I still enjoy the prison history and the museum with Jeff Craemer (a volunteer who helps run the museum),” Nelson explained in a 2020 Inside CDCR story. “San Quentin is so particularly interesting (due to its) history.”

For the renewed push for rehabilitation, Nelson had confidence in CDCR’s staff ability to get the job done.

“I was at San Quentin 30 of my 40 years and we went through several mission changes. We were always able to adapt,” he said in the previous story.

Nelson’s book, “Into Harm’s Way,” was published in 2019 and is available wherever books are sold.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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