Surprisingly, we recently learned that Deuel Vocational Institution, the California prison located east of Tracy, will be closed in 2021.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the closing is scheduled this time next year as part of a continuing program of shuttering one prison facility each year.
If the prison is shut down next October, its closing will be right on schedule. That contrasts to DVI’s opening in 1953: It was delayed a year because of a flood.
State officials decided in 1947 that a new correctional facility would replace the California Vocational Institution opened in 1946 at a World War II Army Air Forces pilot-training base near Lancaster.
Because inmates in the new facility near Tracy would be mostly Youth Authority wards who had caused discipline problems in YA facilities, it was also decided that DVI would be operated by the Department of Corrections, which had more experience dealing with difficult prisoners than the Youth Authority did at its schools and camps.
In 1948, the state purchased 783 acres of Dethlefesen Bros. farmland some five miles east of Tracy. Construction was scheduled to begin in 1950 with completion by 1952.
But several months after construction had gotten underway, flood waters covered the building site off Kasson Road and halted construction.
The flooding was part of the pre-Christmastime flood of 1950, which started in mid-December with seepage of flood-level water in the San Joaquin River water through porous levees at San Joaquin River Club and then intensified by a levee break on Paradise Cut.
Within a week, close to 7,000 acres of land had been inundated with water extending westward through the DVI construction area toward Banta while cutting Highway 50 (11th Street) and two transcontinental railroad lines.
Flood waters and mud covered the DVI property for several months in 1950, delaying the resumption of work on foundations and utility lines.
By the summer of 1953, though, DVI construction was nearing completion, and it was announced that Gov. Earl Warren would be present on July 6, 1953, to lay the cornerstone of the correctional facility named for State Sen. Charles Hastings Deuel of Chico, who authored the legislation in 1945 that established the California Vocational Institution.
It was a sweltering summer afternoon when Warren addressed some 900 people assembled in front of the new correctional facility designed to provide Youth Authority wards with vocational training along with heavy doses of remedial education and psychiatrically-based counseling.
Noting that a new medium-security prison at Soledad in the Salinas Valley was being completed at the same time, the governor said California was providing two modern, well-equipped correctional facilities to augment two older Northern California prisons at San Quentin and Folsom.
“With the opening of this institution, California is beginning the finest prison system in the world,” declared Warren, who a short time later would be appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
He praised the people of the Tracy area for their willingness to accept a correctional facility in their area.
The welcome given by Tracy residents to locating DVI near Tracy did not come by accident. It culminated five years of continuing efforts by state corrections officials, especially by the first DVI superintendent, Allen Cook, a former Nebraska school superintendent, in reassuring Tracyites that DVI and its 1,200 inmates were no threat to the community.
After returning from a visit to the vocational-training school at Lancaster, Tracy Mayor Bill Larsen agreed.
The Tracyites were impressed by the vocational shops, ranging from plumbing to aircraft engines, which were billed as the hallmark of the program of providing the inmates with job skills they could use once returned to society.
Those DVI vocational-training programs, after being launched in 1953 with high hopes, suffered ups and downs over the years after budget cuts and changing correctional priorities, including a reception and guidance center and housing for medium-security prisoners, brought them to a halt.
What will become of the DVI facilities after they are closed next year? Perhaps a regional vocational-training school?
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.