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Thomas B. White Directed Innovative La Tuna for 19 Years
By Pablo Antonio Medina-Medina, with additional material by Nallely Longoria, Stella Perry Betsaida Fierro and Daniel Arredondo
Image caption: Thomas Bruce White, La Tuna's first warden, launched innovative programs for inmates. Photo courtesy of Israel Jacquez, Executive Assistant, La Tuna Federal Correctional Institute
The move to La Tuna was a result of a serious injury White received during an attempted prison escape at Leavenworth. His wife and their two boys were delighted to move back to the Southwest. White, too, looked forward to a prison with younger men, where the chances of rehabilitation were better than with the confirmed criminals in Leavenworth’s overcrowded population.
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According to research by M. J. Handgraaf, La Tuna grew considerably during 1935 and 1936. Some 300 acres of land were cultivated. In addition to a farm that provided the inmates with vegetables as well as ducks, chickens and turkeys, White planted an orchard of 200 peach trees, 200 pear trees, other fruit trees and 1,300 grapevines. A dam 750 feet long and 50 feet high provided water for an irrigation system used by this lush desert oasis. Prisoners built the dam with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Burrowing gophers often diverted the water from the irrigation ditches, but the ever-creative White capitalized on the trapping skills of a Native American inmate who solved the problem for years to come.
White also initiated poultry production by purchasing several thousand chicks, according to Adams. White sought out an inmate who knew how to care for chickens, a plan similar to using the gopher-trapping prisoner. Adams wrote a fascinating story about this particular inmate who could not bring himself to kill sickly chicks that could spread disease to others. White assigned a helper to accomplish this task.
After he served his time at La Tuna, the sensitive poultry keeper who could not kill a chick was “soon arrested by Arizona authorities, tried, and convicted for the killing of his wife and young son.” White’s range-riding years reminded him that wild turkeys survived on the seeds of desert vegetation, inspiring La Tuna’s turkey flock. The inmate who tended the turkeys used a red cloth attached to a fishing pole to herd them out into the desert to eat and to secure them safely in their pens at night.
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When White noticed how much the prisoners liked sorghum, a heavy syrup popular in the South, La Tuna attempted to produce its own. Inmates planted sugar cane and constructed a mill. Under the supervision of a Louisiana molasses expert (also an inmate), the cane was harvested, crushed and cooked. While the first batch of syrup was bitter and unpalatable, the inmates experimented with different blends of syrup until one could be placed on the prison menu.
Image caption: Milk bottle crates. Photo taken by Stella Perry at the FCI/FSL La Tuna Historical MuseumIn addition to farming, La Tuna inmates learned dairying skills. In 1941, a state-of-the-art barn costing $54,000 was constructed and included facilities for the birthing and care of calves. When members of a visiting House appropriations subcommittee expressed displeasure over the fact that the expensive barn was empty of cows, Superintendent of Prisons James V. Bennett stated that there were no cows due to a lack of Congressional funding. Besides, the cost included two barns and milking equipment as well, he added.
Warden White later provided proof that “the La Tuna dairy herd [had] the highest production rating in the prison system,” with each cow producing 20,771 pounds of milk per year, compared to 5,000 pounds for an ordinary cow. In addition to dairy cows, the prison also raised most of the beef and pork consumed by the prisoners.
In 1951, Thomas Bruce White retired from La Tuna and served for six years on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles . White said, “I began by catching criminals and sending them to prison. Then I spent twenty-five years taking care of them while they were serving their time. Finally, I spent the last six years of my career in deciding when they should be released. I had come the full circle.” White and Bessie spent their retirement years in El Paso. White died on December 21, 1971.
White left behind a self-sustaining prison in 1951. In 1963, an El Paso Herald Post article said that La Tuna had a successful furniture repair and refinishing operation for government agencies. In 1984, La Tuna’s participation in the Federal Prison Industries Corporation (UNICOR) established during White’s administration, boasted a gross annual sale of $5 million a year to the government of brushes and refinished furniture. Inmates also repainted U. S. Border Patrol vehicles in the prison automotive shop. At that time, the prison was still producing all the pork, milk and 70% of the beef that the prisoners ate. Cows and pigs grazed in the prison yard, according to a publication by Luis H. Acevedo.
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Image caption: Prize winning holstein. Photo taken by Stella Perry at the FCI/FSL La Tuna Historical Museum
Today, the once self-sustaining facility of La Tuna is simply a correctional institute, with beautiful desert landscaping and a few apple trees. One of the twenty-eight houses in the prison “reservation” where wardens and other prison officials used to live, has been converted into the La Tuna Historical Museum. Inside, former and current staff members and their families can view photographs and artifacts that bear witness to the agricultural activities of the 1930s and 1940s. Walls of photographs depict the staff and prisoners hard at work canning tomatoes, harvesting alfalfa and milking Holsteins. The museum is not open to the public.
In a recent interview, Israel Jacquez, the prison’s Executive Assistant, said that the furniture, broom and brush factory work was discontinued in 2002. Currently, about 300 inmates are involved in the automotive program, equipping police vehicles for federal agencies in the Western District. Workers in this program and in other areas can make from 11 cents to $1.25 per hour. Image caption: Brushes and brooms made by La Tuna inmates for UNICOR Photo taken by Stella Perry at the FCI/FSL La Tuna Historical Museum Jacquez verified that the low-security correctional institute holds 1200 inmates, and the minimum security federal prison camp on site houses 200 inmates convicted of white collar crime. They are usually more educated than the rest of the prison population and have only about six months left on their sentences. Of the 1200 located at the institute, about 65% are non-U. S. citizens. Most are sentenced to six years or less and are drug offenders. At Biggs Army Airfield, another camp of 400 exists.
Jacquez also added that while the majority of the inmates work throughout the day, many prisoners take classes to obtain their GED or to learn a trade. El Paso Community College offers courses in air conditioning, refrigeration and automotive repair. Upon completion of a regular workday and after dinner, inmates can participate in a variety of recreational activities. While the Zimmerman Act of 1998 forbids bench presses and weights of any kind in federal prisons, Jacquez said that stationary bikes, stair-step machines, foosball, horseshoes, and group sports are offered every day.
It is truly a different time from that of Warden White’s day when “prison farm” meant just that.