Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield, I was contacted through the Prison Dharma Network, a group that coordinates visits to prisoners throughout the U.S. It took several months of paperwork and delay, but at last I was entering the first of many gates.
About forty miles from Bakersfield lies the dry, stark, windblown Cummings Valley of the Tehachapi mountains, high enough for scrub oak but too low for evergreens. Among a scattering of houses and vineyards sprawls the cement and steel compounds of the eighty-year-old California Correctional Institute, the third oldest prison in California after Folsom (1880) and San Quentin (1852).
The prison opened in 1933 as the California Institution for Women, Tehachapi, the first women’s prison in the state, with 28 inmates transferred from San Quentin where they had been housed side-by-side with men with predictable results. The new women’s prison was run on progressive lines with the idea that these women (those who were not hanged) could be returned to society better than they came in. They were allowed to make “colorful frocks” fashioned after what was chic in the magazines and even to wear red shoes if they liked, rather than the drab prison garb and dull boots they had sported in San Quentin.
It was into that environment that Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade sent Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaunessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941): “Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” James M. Cain also referenced the prison in Double Indemnity (1943) when he mentioned a wife who was cleaning her gun when her husband “got in the way.”
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