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Rural Exterior Masks Grim Nature of Honor Ranch

Times Staff Writer

What appears from I-5 to be just a quiet farm is actually the county’s second-largest jail, with minimum-, medium- and maximum-security sections. Many residents of the growing area nearby are unaware of its size and scope.

When motorists on Interstate 5 speed past the county’s second-largest jail near Halsey Canyon Road in Castaic, they see what appears to be just another picturesque ranch with cattle grazing peacefully on the green, rolling hills and workers tilling crops in neatly furrowed rows.

Highway signs with arrows pointing to Wayside Honor Rancho are the only clues that the expanse of land that runs parallel to the freeway on the east for several miles is a jail that houses 5,000 minimum-, medium- and maximum-security men.

The Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, its official name, is so well hidden from public view that many residents who live in a year-old housing tract less than a mile away are unaware that the jail is any more than what its name implies--an honor farm. Other people buying new homes in the fast-growing neighborhoods near the jail have no idea at all what the facility is.

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“It’s a work farm of some sort, isn’t it?” asked one resident. “It’s not for serious criminals, is it?”

1985 Prison Escape

Until March, 1985, when seven inmates, including one murderer, escaped from the jail’s maximum-security unit, even longtime residents of the area didn’t realize that the once-sleepy honor farm now houses convicted felons awaiting sentencing to state prison and inmates being tried for felonies.

“They call it an honor ranch, so I thought it was just a detention facility,” said one woman who, at the time, lived a block away from where one of the fugitives was captured.

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After that incident, county officials decided to stop sending inmates being held on murder charges to Castaic from the crowded downtown Central Jail, the county’s largest. But inmates either awaiting trial or sentencing to a state prison for all other crimes ranging from misdemeanor theft to felony rape, armed robbery and assault still are housed at Pitchess. Some prisoners in the medium- and maximum-security units have already been sentenced and are waiting to be transported to a state prison.

Plans call for the Castaic jail’s population to swell from 5,000 to 9,000 inmates by 1989 to help ease crowding at all county jails, which has reached crisis proportions, according to Capt. Raymond E. Gott, head of the rancho’s minimum- and medium-security operations.

Built for 1,900

The daily population in the county’s eight jail facilities is between 19,400 and 20,000 inmates, almost double the number the state Department of Corrections has rated them to house, Gott said. Pitchess was built to handle 1,900 inmates, he said.

Gott shares responsibility for running the jail, spread over 2,850 acres, with Capt. Vance Kirkpatrick, head of the jail’s maximum-security unit.

Because of expansion plans that include a new 2,100-inmate maximum-security facility and a second medium-security unit for 1,200 inmates, Gott said he has proposed yet another name change for the jail. For about 40 years, until the name was changed four years ago to honor the former county sheriff, the jail was known as Wayside Honor Rancho. He would like to drop Honor Rancho from the jail’s name.

“I think we’re deceiving people,” Gott said. “They don’t know there’s a jail of this size here.” Technically, an honor ranch houses prisoners who have committed minor offenses and work off their sentences under extremely light security measures. There are no fences at those facilities, and the inmates are on their honor to remain at the facility without direct supervision.

Custodial Complex

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Gott has suggested that the name be changed to the Peter J. Pitchess Custodial Complex. The Sheriff’s Department’s custody division is considering the change, Gott said.

The local newspaper, the Newhall Signal, published a two-part series on the jail in February, which, Gott said, informed some people that there is a jail in their neighborhood. Most people who read the series “had absolutely no idea they were living near a jail with 5,000 inmates,” Gott said. “They thought it was just some work camp.”

But, he said, many residents still are unaware of the jail’s size.

“We want to let people know we’re here, that we’re no longer just a sleepy little honor farm out in the boonies,” Gott said. “I want to get away from that connotation.”

With most of the inmates in maximum- and medium-security units, the jail no longer even qualifies for the honor work system, Gott said. In fact, the honor ranch designation has been a misnomer for several years, he said.

Almost 700 other county and state inmates are scattered among eight work and fire camps in the Santa Clarita Valley mountains. The Citizens for Fair Prison Sites, a group formed to fight Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s proposal to build a state prison in Saugus, pointed to these facilities, along with the Pitchess complex, in their protests last year.

“Our valley does more than its fair share to house prisoners,” said Deniece Sims, a member of the anti-prison group.

Other members of the group said they are interested in knowing more about the Pitchess complex and its expansion plans. They also said they are willing to live with the giant jail because it was there before many of them were.

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Opened in 1938

“I just hope they make it secure,” said Robin Geissler, founder of the group, referring to the rancho’s new maximum-security unit.

The Wayside Honor Rancho opened in 1938 when the county bought the land from dairy farmer George Dunn. It was California’s first honor farm. Originally, the jail housed a few hundred selected inmates.

In the early days, the inmates raised vegetables and worked on the rancho’s dairy and hog farms, which also were much smaller than they are today. Oil was discovered on the property in 1952. The wells are leased to Texaco and bring about $1.5 million a year to the county’s coffers, Gott said.

Although the county did not publicize the fact, a maximum-security unit has existed at the jail since 1951, when a facility for 200 inmates was added to relieve crowded conditions in the main jail downtown. In 1957, the maximum-security unit was enlarged to accommodate 706 inmates.

A menacing-looking, windowless concrete building tucked up a mountain behind the minimum- and medium-security units houses maximum-security inmates. The four-acre building’s only open space is a small exercise yard watched over by guards in two towers.

The new maximum-security building will be located behind the present facility. Site preparation, which includes grading and leveling off of the mountain slope, will take a year, Gott said. The new 2,100-bed unit, which will cost $110 million to build, is scheduled to open in January, 1989.

Double 14-foot-high fences topped with razor wire surround the medium-security unit, which Gott said is the newest prisoner category at the jail. Inside the fence are several rows of metal barracks, which were erected in 1984 to handle any possible problems at the Olympics, Gott said. Three guard towers around the complex are manned 24 hours a day.

No one has escaped from the medium-security facility since 1984, Gott said. There have been no escapes from the maximum-security unit since the March, 1985, incident.

In minimum security, there are no fences. A prisoner could walk away any time. But, Gott said, few do. The annual number of escapes from minimum security has decreased steadily from 82 in 1981 to 11 in 1985. Three inmates have walked off the jail grounds this year. Usually, they are caught and placed in more secure confinement, Gott said.

“This is still a good place to do time,” he said.

3 Daily Counts

Each day, inmates are counted in the morning, after lunch and at bedtime, a process that can take from five minutes to more than an hour. If even one prisoner has walked away from his work station, all inmates are kept in lines until he is found.

“They arrive by bus and don’t leave here until they get back on that bus,” said Sgt. Ralph Mundell, a field sergeant who has been at the facility for 20 years.

A prisoner walked away on a sunny day last week as Mundell was taking two visitors on a tour of the jail. His attention turned to the chatter on the unit’s radio.

“He could be asleep under a tree somewhere,” Mundell said. “Or he could have gotten spring fever and tried to escape. It doesn’t happen very often.”

‘Hurts Your Pride’

When a prisoner does escape, Mundell said, “It hurts your pride.”

The missing inmate was found on the grounds later that day.

Gott said every minimum-security prisoner has a regular eight-hour-a-day job somewhere--in the kitchen, construction, cement finishing, laundry, dairy, bakery, hog farm, mechanical division or one of the jail’s various industries, Gott said. The inmates who work are not paid wages, he said, but there is a good incentive for them to do their jobs well.

He said inmates who show up for work every day and “do their jobs right, get five days taken off their sentences every month. With time off for good behavior, a person sentenced to county jail for a year can get out in eight months.”

The work teaches inmates skills they can use after they’re released, he said. Inmates also are offered general academic courses through a contract with San Gabriel Valley’s Hacienda La Puente Unified School District. There also is a public library and a small store, where inmates can buy cigarettes, candy and other items.

Other Expansions

By the time the new $110-million maximum security complex opens, Gott said, several other expansions will have taken place. They include a $10-million, 1,200-bed medium-security facility, a new $4.5-million kitchen, a $4-million laundry, a $25-million co-generation plant and a new visitors center.

The new laundry will handle all the soiled linen and uniforms from all the county’s hospitals as well as the jails, Gott said. The co-generation plant, he said, will allow the jail to generate its own power and sell off the excess to Southern California Edison Co. Gott said the jail already produces its own water from wells on the property and has its own landfill to eliminate the need for garbage collection.

Officials of the jail obviously are proud of its industries. They frequently refer to the amount of money their operations save taxpayers. The dairy, for example, saves the county more than $1 million a year, Gott said.

A herd of 275 cows provides milk for the county’s eight jails and 18 other facilities, including several work camps and MacLaren Hall in El Monte, the county’s home for abused and neglected youngsters. Farm manager Mike Sheridan, a Sheriff’s Department civilian employee, said a herd of about 240 beef cattle brings in $103,000 every year.

1,000 Hogs

A 1,000-head hog farm annually produces about 100,000 pounds of dressed pork valued at $131,000, said Dave Acuna, who works for Sheridan as head of the hog farm. The hogs are bred at the ranch and either nurtured as future mothers or raised to 225 pounds and then slaughtered for the county by the Farmer John Co., Acuna said.

Sheridan also supervises a nursery that produces 40,000 plants a year for use at county institutions and on landscaping projects. The county currently is negotiating a contract with the state Department of Transportation to do freeway landscaping, he said.

Some maximum security prisoners work at the bakery, which is attached to their enclosed complex. Each week, the bakery produces more than 40,000 loaves of bread, about 4,000 dozen rolls and more than 9,000 dozen cookies.

The dairy has a modern milking machine, a sanitizing spray, an automatic floor washer and other equipment run by computers hidden in the back of the dairy.

Raising Feed

Calves also are born and bred at the jail.

Alfalfa, oats and barley are raised at the jail to feed the ranch animals.

The minimum-security unit’s sewing crew makes and mends all uniforms for the county jail system, Gott said.

1,500 Uniforms a Week

“Rather than buy the uniforms, we make them,” he said. “We make close to 1,500 uniforms a week.”

About 275 Sheriff’s Department employees work at Pitchess. Many are young deputies because, Gott said, a job at one of the jails always is a Sheriff’s Academy graduate’s first assignment in the department. Gott currently has several female deputies at Pitchess.

“They’re all in training,” he said.

They are among 70 new deputies who will attend the first class at the new Sheriff’s Academy at College of the Canyons in Valencia. Gott said it has been impractical to send recruits assigned to north Los Angeles jails to the old Sheriff’s Academy, since it was moved from East Los Angeles to Whittier last year.

Some Live at Ranch

Several of the single deputies and other employees who work at Pitchess live in barracks on the jail grounds.

“We charge a nominal rent,” Gott said. “Some people live so far away that they don’t like to travel here every day. So they live here. It helps us too. They give us an immediate backup force we can mobilize instantly in case of trouble.”

Gott, himself, was assigned to the jail as a new deputy. Two years ago, 20 years after he left that assignment, he returned to Pitchess in his present capacity.

When Gott left the jail, it housed less than 2,000 inmates.

“A lot has changed since I was first here,” he said.


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