After more than six decades of exemplary service to youthful offenders and the community at large, it was bittersweet last Friday for many of the staff past and present, family, and officials who convened at the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility for a final farewell closing ceremony.
An estimated 1,000 people braved the intense heat, exchanging hugs and handshakes to recognize the facility’s upcoming closure and commend those who contributed to its long history.
“Ceremonies like this are bittersweet,” said Bernard Warner, Chief Deputy Secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice. “The decision to close this facility, which has so much history and such strong connection to the community, was one of the most difficult that I’ve been a part of. But the way this staff and the community has handled it is one thing that I will be forever proud of. The city of Paso Robles as we know it now has literally grown up around this once remote location five miles outside of downtown Paso Robles.”
The facility is slated for closure on July 31 to be repurposed into a 900-bed, low-level adult prison and 100-bed Cal Fire camp. A possible 250-bed secure community re-entry facility could also be added to the site but hasn’t been confirmed. State officials said on Friday that no timeline has been developed yet for how a plan might unfold for the 250-bed re-entry facility, while they remain optimistic.
Friday was a day of reuniting for many of the staff who gathered at the site to take a look at some of the old memorabilia on display, participate in a closing ceremony and afternoon tri-tip barbecue. Ray Johnson started his employment with the institution in 1988.
“I never thought I would ever work in a place like this, especially what I saw on the other side of the fence,” he said. “But coming here has been an absolute blessing.”
There have been some really positive things that have happened there, Johnson said. For one, the staff has been absolutely incredible, he said.
“I mean, these people really, really did care, and it really hurts them, to see this place go, even though they’ve maybe even retired now or gone on to other institutions or facilities or done something else in their life,” he said. “They’re just going you know this is part of their lives, not only just their livelihood, but the memories that they’ve developed.”
Recently, Johnson helped relocate the youth that had been housed at the correctional facility to an alternate facility that meets their needs ends. The Paso Robles facility currently houses no wards.
Employees at the Paso Robles facility are also making alternate arrangements. To make his options more available, Johnson completed a transitional academy with the adult division. He said he’s hoping to get picked up at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo or field parole in San Luis Obispo. He feels proud to have been a part of a team that changed the lives of troubled youth for the better.
“A person is very fortunate to find something that they find as employment that gives them a satisfaction and a purpose that feels meaningful and feel like they did something that contributed, and I think that’s what the staff here got they felt like — they actually contributed, they gave something that had a positive effect on another person,” he said.
In his own community, Johnson is still very much in close contact with one success story, a young individual who turned his life around. The former ward is just one representation of many who have made tremendous changes in their lives, he said.
“It’s just good to see that,” he said. “They see it in the way we are with our lives, the way that we are with each other we interact with our community and they look at it and they say ‘You know what? That’s what I want.’”
Employees like Patti Schoeber arrived at the facility Friday for a reunion of sorts. She’s been retired from the institution for 10 years. She called her fellow employees a “family.”
“I really hate to see it happen,” she said of the closure.
Schoeber was busy sharing memories with people like Joe Quiroz, who was hired with the youth authority in the 1970s and was transferred to the Paso Robles facility.
Over that time, Quiroz said he developed an affinity for the area and its desirability for raising kids. He retired in July of 2000.
“I had plenty of opportunities to leave, but I love this area so much, and I had kids, I was a single dad, and I stayed here,” he said. “Because this is a great place to bring up kids.”
Quiroz, who serves as a Trustee for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, used words like “energetic,” “nurturing” and as having “the kids’ best welfare in mind,” to describe staff.
“I loved every staff member who ever worked for me, and I’m talking a couple of hundred over the years,” he said.
Russ Harris was one of those employees. Harris worked at the institution from 1979 to 2000 and said he was “born and raised in this institution.”
Like Warner, Harris described the day as “bittersweet.”
“The sweet part of it is seeing all of these guys at this closing that I haven’t seen for years, but the bitter part of it is I think we’re losing a legacy here,” he said. “We had a family atmosphere here. The staff all worked well here together; there was not division in the staff. It was a family.”
Though the future remains uncertain for many staff, Harris said he is hoping for their best.
“I’m really happy to see all of my old friends, and I wouldn’t miss seeing them for the world,” he said. “I just hope that everybody finds a place and a career here and I hope that everybody gets placed, my family and my friends here.”
Friday’s final farewell included a welcome by Superintendent David Bacigalupo, flag ceremonies by the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility Color Guard and Honor Guard and brief speeches by Mayor Frank Mecham, Marie C. Romero High School principal Art Westerfield, Main Street Association executive director Norma Moye, SLO County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Rob Reid, retired PRJUSD administrator Linda Janzen and Monica Ohlhausen, Citizen Advisory Committee member.
The closing ceremony also included the presentation of a resolution by representatives of Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and State Senator Abel Maldonado, as well as the city of Paso Robles and SLO County.
In his speech, Bacigalupo extended his appreciation to the current and former employees, their families, volunteers and the countless supporters who assisted the DJJ and California Youth Authority over the years.
“The success of the ‘Boys School’ has had in mentoring, molding and changing the lives of many young men is a tremendous tribute to your dedication and professionalism,” he said.
Mecham said it’s important to recognize the community involvement that was so integral to the facility’s success
“I don’t think this is the end, I think this is a new beginning,” he said. “And we hope that this is a new beginning for a continued relationship that we so valued over the past.”
The El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility has a long history, and with it, a long list of employees who oversaw the ebb and flow of youth offenders. During its six-decades plus in existence, the facility saw its peak swell to 960 youth and 420 staff in 1996.
The facility originally opened in 1947 as the Paso Robles School for Boys housed in Quonset huts on 140 acres of the abandoned Estrella Army Air Corps Base. It was later acquired by the state youth authority following World War II, with the first wards arriving in September 1947.
Most of the institution as the public knows it today, including the living and administration units, were completed in 1954. Warner said he found it interesting to note that when the Paso Robles Youth Authority School for Boys was dedicated in 1954 it was the very first facility that this department was able to plan, design and build from the ground up to meet the treatment needs of the juvenile offenders at that time.
The next several decades were characterized by declining ward populations during the early 1970s and a closure in 1972. It was later reopened as the El Paso De Robles School.
The 1980s saw a significant increase in population in addition to new construction. In 1988, the 140-bed Los Robles Forestry Camp, a maintenance complex and security control center, was completed.
There was a time not too long ago where the Paso facility competed in regional sports programs. In 1983, its team prevailed in the eight-man football championship in Southern California. In 1989, wards won the California high school rugby championship.
The Skip Ottoson Visiting and Training Center, along with a 180-bed living unit were constructed in 1990.
With an emphasis on pre-release training and pre-parole planning, the institution envisioned better preparing wards for return to the community, which lead to a residential work experience program at Camp Roberts and cooperative venture with the California National Guard in the late 1990s.
In 1997, the boys school changed its name to the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility in keeping with other Youth Authority institutions and in 2005 merged with the Department of Corrections, later known as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation-Division of Juvenile Justice.
Warner said the facility has “incredibly deep roots of community support and interaction.” He cited, for example, Grace Hill, “95-years-young,” who devoted the past 25 years of her life as a religious volunteer here at the facility.
Throughout the six decades, staff has given youthful offenders educational, vocational, recreational and rehabilitative services while maintaining public safety, officials said. Some of the unique treatment and self-realization programs in Paso Robles have the Los Robles Scubadive Team, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation program, a homestead program and Camp Roberts pre-parole program, just to name a few.
With the assistance of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee, the community of Paso Robles has embraced the institution, whose members have contributed more than a million hours of community service for local residents and tens of thousands of dollars for community and victim organizations, officials said.
Most notably perhaps was the wards’ involvement in recovery efforts surrounding the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake.
In his address, Warner appeared optimistic about the facility’s future. He said that it’s a “tribute to this staff and this community” that as the doors of the facility close, the repurposing to an adult institution is moving forward. He said it would not have occurred if it were not for the positive relationship with the community.
“It is because of your efforts, your heart and your sense of hope that has transformed this close knit community to embrace the facility as its own,” he said. “Your dedication to the youth, this facility and the community at large will never be forgotten as the facility enters a new chapter in its correctional environment.”
Warner said that DJJ is continuing to work with the community on the facility’s future.
“There seems to be a strong commitment to repurpose from a juvenile facility to an adult institution, so I think that discussions are going very positive,” he said.
The necessary environmental documents for the repurposing are expected to be released in a few weeks. There are also plans to hold scoping meetings and possible charrettes, said Kathy Prizmich, Deputy Chief of External Affairs for the Office of Public and Employee Communications.
Warner summed up Friday’s speech by thanking the staff who led the facility.
“How we act under adverse conditions is the mark of true leadership and character,” he said. “I’m so impressed with Dave [Bacigalupo] and his staff and the community and how they continue to hold up their heads in pride during this difficult time. Thank you all for your service.”
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