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San Pedro Bay’s Seaside Slammer

February 6, 2014

By Andrea Serna

A copyAerial photograph of Reservation Point at the south end of Terminal Island, containing the Federal Prison, Immigration Station, and U.S. Coast Guard Base, December 1, 1970.  Image CG-0473, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives. 

Considering the multitude of stoic concrete buildings lining Terminal Island, it can be easy to overlook the large federal correctional institute located on the island’s west side.  The Board of Harbor Commissioners’ meeting minutes and the Los Angeles Times indicate that construction of the prison began in 1936.  The facility received its first inmates in June 1938, initially housing approximately 600 men and 25 women (the prison remained gender-integrated during its various reincarnations until the ban enacted in 1977).  As a consequence of increasing American involvement in World War II, the prison’s inmates were relocated so the U.S. Navy could make use of the facilities as housing quarters and receiving station.  Additionally, following the Pearl Harbor attack, the complex was used as a temporary detention and interrogation station, holding numerous Japanese and Japanese-American men, as well as some men of Italian and German backgrounds.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the Navy continued to use the facilities as disciplinary barracks post-war until 1950.  At this time, the state reclaimed the structures, which were then briefly used as a hospital for the criminally insane.  In 1955 the state decided to reopen the prison as a medium-security correctional institute.  Beginning in the 1970s, the prison increasingly accommodated white-collar criminals.

B copyWomen’s Division Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce visit the Federal Correction Institution on Terminal Island, August 5, 1965.  Image PR-58-6-1, Public Relations Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

Due to its location, the history of the Terminal Island prison has been inevitably intertwined with that of the Port of Los Angeles.  From 1938 through 1943, the prison’s employees and visitors factored into the harbor area’s traffic and transportation debates, including the need for a ferry and for restrictions on parking zones.  From 1947 through 1950, the police department and Harbor Commissioners undertook negotiations for the property transfer from the Navy to the state, and then again in 1953 when the facility was placed under county jurisdiction.  The Board of Harbor Commissioners was also involved in ruling on issues such as prison service contractors’ requests for free use of the ferry and on the construction of nearby leisure marinas, both of which were denied.  As the Los Angeles Times reveals, there were several instances in which prisoners took advantage of nearby Port amenities, such as boats and trucks, to make an escape—placing a leisure marina near the correctional facility would have meant tempting inmates and risking public safety.

Terminal Island’s prison is known to have housed numerous notorious criminals.  Infamous mobster Al Capone was among the prison’s earliest inmates, serving a brief 11-month stint for tax evasion in 1939.  Capone claimed to have found God while staying at Terminal Island.  Charles Manson also served time on Terminal Island for two minor offenses in 1967, prior to his killing rampage.  Mobster Salvatore Bonanno, served just a little over three years on Terminal Island.  In 1975, peace activist Martha Tranquilli served seven months for her refusal to pay taxes, which she claimed was part of her protest against war.  Writer and actor Edward Bunker served two years on Terminal Island, in the mid-1970s, where he authored No Beast So Fierce, later adapted into the film Straight Time.  Additionally, in 1973 G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame spent five months at the facility.

C copyWomen’s Division Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce visit the prison classroom at the Federal Correction Institution on Terminal Island, August 5, 1965.  Image PR-58-6-4, Public Relations Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

In addition to housing notable inmates, the Terminal Island prison has also made headlines for its innovative programs.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, the correctional institute participated in numerous progressive programs intended to rehabilitate and help transition its non-violent inmates back into society.  One such program, in cooperation with selected educational institutes and employers, allowed qualifying inmates to leave the prison grounds daily for a certain amount of time to attend college classes or maintain a paying job.  Moreover, the prison itself is reported to still have adequate classrooms where various courses are taught, ranging from literature to economics.   The prison’s education and technical skill initiatives, particularly the writing program, were featured in several Los Angeles Times issues.  Despite its merits and permissiveness, the prison had no shortage of escape attempts—some prisoners bribed guards only to attend Dodger baseball games every so often while others simply wanted to make a swift and permanent getaway.  In the 1970s and ‘80s, the prison had its share of controversies when numerous guards were accused and found guilty of extortion, drug dealing, and facilitating escapes.

The prison continues to operate as an all-male minimum security federal correctional institute, housing mostly nonviolent white-collar criminals.  Due to the present caliber of the prison’s inmates, it is often jokingly referred to as the Terminal Island Resort.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website states its current population at 1,129 inmates.

Andrea Serna is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. She is currently working on her M.A. in History at California State University, Los Angeles.

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