'Brats' recall life in prison's shadow

By: Raheem Hosseini Telegraph Correspondent
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Put Craig Burnett and Tom Doherty in a room together, and the self-proclaimed former “prison brats” will speak evocatively about growing up on the grounds of Folsom State Prison. The prison has offered on-grounds housing since 1930, when the first residential unit was built, said prison spokesman Lt. Anthony Gentile. Past the main gate in a building now used as a personnel office is where Burnett used to live. His father arrived at the prison as a tower guard in 1939, spent four years stationed in Turlock during World War II, then came back to Folsom in 1947, when Burnett was about 3. Burnett’s father didn’t stick around long, though, climbing the career ladder by working prisons in Soledad and Chino before returning to Folsom in 1959, where he became the associate warden in charge of custody. By then, Burnett was a 15-year-old sophomore at Folsom High and raising a youthful ruckus with his pal Doherty, who grew up on the grounds of Folsom Prison from kindergarten all the way through high school graduation in 1963. “It was very secure, very safe,” Doherty said. “We had inmates as gardeners. Some of those guys taught me how to pitch.” In return, Doherty and Burnett now laugh at how inmates used to plumb the high school athletes for information about upcoming games, not knowing at the time that the prisoners were betting on the outcomes. “They wanted to know how the teams were doing because they would bet on the teams,” Doherty chuckled. Doherty’s father started at the prison as a correctional officer in 1935, ending his career decades later as secretary to the warden. Staff that lived on the prison grounds were the first line of defense if anything went wrong, Doherty said. They weren’t called into duty often, but when they were it was generally serious. Both men remember a hostage crisis at the prison chapel that occurred some time in the early 1960s. An inmate was knifed and Burnett’s father was part of the negotiating team that ended the crisis. “It’s pretty scary,” Burnett recalled. “All you know is the siren goes off and boom,” the prison is suddenly locked down and men like their fathers are rushing toward unknown danger. Burnett’s great-grandfather, a prison guard, was an actual hostage in a 1901 prison riot, in which escaped inmates were tracked up American River by National Guard tanks and caught near Iowa Hill. But for the vast majority of their formative years, growing up just outside a state prison was rather peaceful. Many of the pair’s old friends ended up going into law enforcement, as prison guards, sheriff’s deputies, district attorney investigators and the like. Doherty’s brother spent three decades with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Burnett and Doherty proved the exceptions to the unofficial rule. Burnett was a longtime chemist at McClellan Air Force Base, while Doherty went into education. Both men built lasting relationships in the old neighborhood, with Burnett meeting Dianne Bartells, his wife of nearly 44 years, at the prison. And it was through Dianne that Doherty met his future wife, Patty Brown, whose father also worked at the prison. Folsom resident John Markey, whose daughter is married to Burnett’s son, is impressed with how close-knit the group has remained. “It is interesting to see them at a social gathering as they all gravitate toward one another, apparently maintaining a bond that was formed more than 50 years ago on the grounds of Folsom Prison,” he wrote in an e-mail. Doherty, the former Folsom High athletic director and a retired teacher and football coach, sometimes coached the children of people he grew up with. The on-grounds housing is now a paler imitation of its former self. Many of the old residential units are used for other purposes now, and a prison neighborhood that had more than 100 bustling homes and hundreds of children, as well as self-sufficient services like a gas station, dairy, cannery and barber shop — staffed by inmates — now only has 39 occupied residences, according Gentile. “There is no provision or available space to build additional housing,” the lieutenant explained. “These dwellings were built several decades ago.” One of those dwellings, a gothic-looking granite structure bifurcated by a wide staircase, has been empty for years. The exterior of the Officer & Guards Building may more closely resemble a metropolitan museum or courthouse, but it was long used as a multi-level residence for the prison’s warden and senior staff. Built in the late 19th century, the 33,000-square-foot building underwent a seismic retrofit in 2002. Budget issues delayed further work, but renovation is planned for next year, after which Gentile said it’s expected to again house the warden and upper level staff. But it still won’t be like old times. “There were a lot more of us then,” Burnett observed. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, the neighborhood teemed with hundreds of children going to dances at Larkin Hall or spending summer afternoons in the frigid algae-flecked community pool, where Burnett remembers a polio outbreak originated in the late ‘40s. The men now smile at how they used to race their cars down Prison Road as teenagers and avoided getting caught out after curfew by the prison lieutenant in his “prowl car,” an old pickup truck. “We were never convicted,” Doherty chuckled. “We were way smarter than those guys — we thought.”