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Parole Museum Pays Tribute to Unsung System

Times Staff Writer

It’s not exactly the Getty or the Guggenheim, but the small, cream-colored room in Diamond Bar is indeed a museum.

If security is a bit tight -- a pane of bulletproof glass keeps the receptionist safe -- it’s in keeping with the museum’s unlikely subject: the California parole system.

“We didn’t have many choices,” said Parole Agent Paul Toma of the museum, which is tucked inside an administrative building at the Department of Corrections. “With our funding, there weren’t a lot of places we could go.”

For Toma, the museum is the hard-earned culmination of a dream. He fought for 14 years to create a place dedicated to his often-overlooked profession. The cramped space is just another obstacle Toma must face. He has already overcome plenty along the way.

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A tall man who previously worked as a prison guard, the 47-year-old Toma may seem an unlikely candidate for a museum director. When he became a parole agent 17 years ago, he was trained to analyze the psychology of ex-convicts, monitor them in society and take them down by force if necessary.

That training never covered the aesthetics of gallery lighting or the framing of vintage photographs.

But Toma, a man with a mission, remains undeterred. His quest has to do with respect. Parole agents, he says, don’t get any.

Before the museum existed, Toma sometimes visited schools, piggybacking on the presentations of other law enforcement officers. Once, in an appearance at the Tustin Boys & Girls Club, he had to follow a California Highway Patrol officer who’d swaggered up with a gun and a radio strapped around his tan uniform.

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Children’s hands shot up.

“They asked him, ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ ‘How big is your gun?’ ” Toma recalled.

Then it was Toma’s turn. He walked up in his uniform: a suit and tie.

“The kids asked me, ‘Is your mustache real?’ ”

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That’s when Toma wanted a museum that could set the record straight.

“We may go unnoticed,” he said. “But, in fact, we’re out there risking our lives day after day.”

What eventually became the T.H. Pendergast California Parole Museum began in 1990 as a junk pile in Toma’s office. On his days off, he traveled the state interviewing retired parole officers and wading through their dusty attics. He found old photos, early department documents, badges, even a dictionary of prison slang from 1951.

Every year, he’d bring up his idea for a museum. Administrators thought it would be too costly. Other agents said they’d be embarrassed to see their pictures on a wall. And every few months Toma would hear that another retired veteran had died, which only made him more desperate -- another link to the past lost forever.Finally, in 2001, after a decade of lobbying, Toma won $50,000 in funding from the Legislature. He started work on the museum’s first exhibit ... sort of.

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“They called me for some advice on how to frame something,” said Patrick Merrill, curator of the Kellogg University Art Gallery in Pomona. “I very quickly saw they didn’t have a clue about any of it.”

Artifacts were strewn about, separated by category: badges here, photos there, books along the wall.

“It was a nightmare,” Merrill said. “To an archivist it’s important how the donors stored it and the sequence. You can’t just take collections apart.”

Merrill offered to tutor Toma. But there were immediate artistic differences.

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Early on, the museum included a prosthetic leg used as a prop in “American Me,” a movie about a leader of the Mexican Mafia.

“It was a big attraction,” Toma said. “Everyone always wanted to see it.”

Merrill groans whenever the leg comes up in conversation. “It just wasn’t appropriate.... You want to tell a story. You want thematic unity. The leg did not fit in.”

The museum finally opened in October. It has a handful of visitors each month, mostly retirees and high school classes. Visits are by appointment only.

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The museum no longer exhibits the fake leg, but it does have photos on the walls -- vintage black-and-whites as well as contemporary color shots. They show parolees in various stages of the system: in prison, before a parole board, back in society.

The tour includes a PowerPoint presentation that chronicles the history of parole: from the first state prison -- housed in a rotting three-masted ship in the 1850s -- to the creation of a parole system in 1893 because of overcrowding. It leads to the modern agency now called the Parole and Community Services Division.

Much of the museum features Tom Pendergast, a pioneer in the parole system. Toma flew to Sacramento in 1999 to search for Pendergast, who had retired after a 41-year career. He finally found his retirement home, only to learn that Pendergast, 97, had died a week earlier. Pendergast became the museum’s namesake.

As Toma sees it, the one-room museum is just the start; he aspires to much more.

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He envisions historians and scholars visiting the Pendergast for research, once it gains accreditation as an archive.

“But for us to become an archive,” Merrill cautioned, “we’d have to find a full-time archivist who’s interested in parole somehow. And then we’d have to find the money to pay them.”

Sometimes, when Merrill isn’t around, Toma talks about his biggest dream.

“We could go national. Our museum might become the museum for parole,” Toma said. “Patrick would probably slap me around if he heard me say that.”

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Indeed, Merrill wants Toma to focus on a more immediate concern: funding, which might run out by the end of this year.

“We don’t even have a permanent building yet,” he said.

Toma admits he’s often “optimistic and sometimes not realistic.”

“But I know in my heart we have to tell this story,” he said. “We have to find some way to honor parole agents.”

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