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Inside the prison within a prison at Tule Lake

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Photo by Lee Juillerat The not-so-fine view of Castle Rock from the Tule Lake prison.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Ranger Danny Ortiz discusses size and scale of Tule LakeDetention-Segregation Center during a tour of the facility.
Photo by Lee Juillerat A scan of a tag given to people assigned to Tule Lake.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Tule Lake National Monument ranger Danny Ortiz leads a tour into a prison cell.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Remnants of writing on a prison wall: "Show me the way to go home"

TULE LAKE NATIONAL MONUMENT — People wanting to learn more about the complex story of the “Prison within a prison” at the Tule Lake National Monument can do so through ranger-led tours.

Visits to the prison were halted while repairs were being made to the 1943 building, one of the few remaining structures from the World War II camp. At its peak, Tule Lake had 18,789 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, incarcerated at the camp near Newell. The stockade was built at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1944.

Ranger-guided tours explain how people from two families, one that was incarcerated at the camp and another of local farmers who lived nearby, were key figures in the prison’s history.

Jimi Yamaichi, a carpenter who was being held at Tule Lake with his family, took on the controversial job of building the jail. As head of the crew tasked with building the stockade, he used delay tactics to stall and, he hoped, to prevent its construction.

After the camp’s closure, members of the Osborne family, who lived in Newell near the camp, helped preserve items from the prison that were reinstalled as part of the stockade’s recent renovation

The Osborne and Yamaichi stories are told during two-hour-long tours of the Tule Lake Segregation Center, which encompasses only a small portion of the camp’s original 7,400 acres.

“We want to provide an opportunity for people to see the prison,” said Angela Sutton, Tule Lake’s lead interpreter, of the tours.

During a recent tour, seasonal Tule Lake ranger Denny Ortiz explained how the Tule Lake Relocation Center, which opened in 1942, was converted in 1943 to a high security segregation center to house “disloyal” Japanese Americans. After the change, security increased with upwards of 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers, by expanding the number of guard towers from six to 28, installing a lighted seven-foot-tall chain link, barbed wire fence, and adding several tanks.

The prison was built when Tule Lake was made a detention center. Conflicts occurred, largely because many of those incarcerated at the center believed their civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution were being violated.

Yamaichi, who died in 2018, continued his involvement with Tule Lake until his death. He was a founder and leader of the Tule Lake Committee, a group of Tule Lake survivors and their families that holds bi-annual Tule Lake Pilgrimages. Ortiz said Yamaichi originally declined to oversee the prison’s construction. When the center director threatened to hire an outside person, he agreed to take charge.

Ortiz told how Yamaichi tried to stall the work by insisting on using only high quality, difficult to obtain building materials, such as concrete, pure water and steel. The items were not immediately available but, to Yamaichi’s disappointment, were eventually provided.

“He requested the steel, then pure water, then he thought, ‘I got ‘em,’” Ortiz said of Yamaichi’s demands. After being delayed for six months, the prison construction took three months.

Opened in 1944, the six-cell concrete jail was designed to hold 24 men but at times held many more. Although a section was designed for women, only men were imprisoned.

When the camp and prison closed March 20, 1946 — Tule Lake was the last of 10 camps to close — items of value were sold. But, as Ortiz explained, because it was so sturdily built, the prison’s steel doors had to be torn out, which damaged and created gaps in the concrete walls.

When offered for sale in 1946, many items from the prison were purchased by Allison M. and James Edgar Osborne, who lived near the camp. During the war, Allison had spent time at the camp helping teach in the elementary school and also often provided people with vegetables. According to Ortiz, when Allison, who saw firsthand how people were being treated, tried to describe camp conditions to friends, “They didn’t believe her. They thought they (incarcerated Japanese Americans) had an easy life.”

For more than 65 years the Osborne family saved and protected the prison items. In August 2012, Bill Osborne, Allison and James’ son, donated “significant portions” of the jail’s metal infrastructure, including cell bars, doors and bunks, to the park.

“After the war (the Osbornes) bought as much as they could of the jail,” Ortiz said. Over the years, when new generations of family members asked what should be done with the items. (Allison) Osborne reportedly told them to “wait.”

“We were in complete shock,” Sutton said of the 2012 donation of prison items. “It was beyond imagination that they had that foresight” to purchase and preserve the items. “There was no way for them to know that it (the Tule Lake prison) would be one of the few structures that would be still standing.”

Because Tule Lake was the only relocation center with a prison, preserving it and offering public tours are intended to provide visitors with insights of life and conditions at Tule Lake. As Sutton explains, “It’s a part of history. Tule Lake is unique because it’s a darker story than the other camps had.”

Arrangements for ranger-guided tours of the Tule Lake Segregation Camp prison must be made at least two weeks in advance, by calling the Tule Lake National Monument office at 530-260-0537 or Angela Sutton at 530-667-8119.

Rangers do not staff the park’s seasonal office at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Visitors can, however, view the exhibits and obtain maps and brochures. For information, visit the website at www.nps.gov/tule/planyourvisit/index.htm

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Background on the Tule Lake jail

The Tule Lake jail is unique to Word War II Japanese American incarceration history because Tule Lake was the only one of the 10 War Relocation Authority camps to become a maximum-security facility with three separate detention facilities, including the jail.

The jail was in use from late 1944 until the Tule Lake Segregation Center closed in March 1946. The concrete jail was used to detain dissident leaders before moving them to Department of Justice camps.

The building sat vacant for years and deteriorated because of aging and weathering. The California Department of Transportation recognized the historic significance of the jail and constructed a shelter to protect it from the elements.

CalTrans transferred the jail to the National Park Service when the camp was designated as the Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in 2008. It was redesignated as the stand-alone Tule Lake National Monument in March 2018.

Of the detention center’s original 18,789 acres, 37 acres are part of the national monument. The National Monument also includes Camp Tulelake east of Tulelake and the 1,293-acre area known as The Peninsula, or Castle Rock, southeast of Newell.