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Youth Prison Reflected Changing Philosophies

June 13, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

In Whittier, behind an 18-foot chain-link fence topped by triple coils of razor wire, stand historic landmarks that make up the Fred C. Nelles youth prison, which opened when Benjamin Harrison was in the White House.

For 113 years it has educated and disciplined delinquents and young felons, sometimes steering them into more productive paths. Among its successful alumni: country Western singer Merle Haggard, actor Rory Calhoun and psychologist Aaron Kipnis, author of "Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys' Become Good Men."

Among its failures, "red light bandit" Caryl Chessman, who was executed in 1960 for rape.

Nelles is closing June 30, the victim of budget cuts. The inmates, known as wards, are already gone, sent to other institutions. Developers and movie makers are swarming the tree-studded 95-acre grounds, which are expected to net the state at least $100 million.

Nelles may resemble a prison today, but it was born as a kinder and gentler alternative. It opened in 1891 so California could stop sending wayward youths to San Quentin and Folsom.

In the beginning, it was an unfenced campus with a school, orchards, cattle and gardens to feed the wards, girls and boys ages 8 to 18. Sent there for such transgressions as shoplifting and running away from home, they grew their own vegetables, churned butter, milked cows and learned other trades such as cooking, plumbing, carpentry and, later, auto repair.

The bucolic setting encouraged some parents to try to drop off their incorrigible offspring, but they were refused: Only judges could commit the juveniles. The first superintendent, Walter Lindley, was a former Minnesota schoolmaster popular among the wards but not state officials. They considered his discipline too lax -- that is, until 1894, when officials blamed him for an underling's brutality.

Drillmaster John D. Fredericks had been sent to find two escapees. When he caught up with 15-year-old Martin McClune, he whacked the youth on the head with his pistol. That blow, The Times reported, "seemed to stimulate all the evil passion in Fredericks' heart."

"I wish I had killed you," Fredericks was quoted as saying.

McClune was blinded.

Lindley took responsibility and resigned, but Fredericks prospered. A law student at the time of the incident, he became Los Angeles' district attorney in 1902.

Violence was no stranger to these halls. On the wall in the administration building is a plaque with the names of a dozen children -- 10 boys and two girls ages 14 through 17 -- who died around the turn of the 20th century. One boy, Fred Bruhn, fell 40 feet from a dormitory window while trying to escape.

Most of the dead had no parents -- at least, none who cared about them -- so the youths were buried in a cemetery at the far end of the property. Later, the graveyard was sold and turned into housing developments.

In the years after the Fredericks incident, the school had a series of short-term superintendents and a long record of unsatisfactory state reports. Finally, in 1912, businessman Fred C. Nelles was appointed superintendent. He promised radical change, and he delivered.

For starters, he required all teachers to have the same credentials as teachers in public schools, and he moved the female wards to an institution in Ventura.

When Nelles found some boys wearing the "Oregon boot" -- a 12-pound band of steel around an ankle to keep the toughest kids from running off -- he put a stop to it. Some boys had been kept in the boots so long that they were crippled for life. Nelles stopped the beatings and the use of restraints against young offenders too.

In some cases, he even sent youths on camping, hiking and sailing trips, a precursor of today's Outward Bound, to inspire confidence and trust.

Nelles' tenure ended with his death in 1927, but his academic and athletic programs survived. The name of the Whittier State School was changed to the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in 1941.

By the late 1960s and early '70s, Nelles had stricter "entrance requirements" and tougher "cadets" who had committed robbery, repeat offenses or even murder. The softer and gentler phase was ending; an effort began to keep out kids who weren't hard-core criminals.

At the same time, the school added more sports, such as boxing and football, for youths whose only prior athletics might have been gang fights, shootouts and sprints from the law.

"It takes 45 minutes to an hour to physically get them out to practice," said coach Jeff Baker in a 1977 Times interview. "You go to the cottages and find some of them hiding under the beds ... or in the kitchen. Football for them is the first disciplinary environment they've encountered, and they resist it."

But by the end of one season, four or five players had volunteered to postpone their paroles to play football. The quarterback even cut short a one-week furlough.

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