Ghosts of Incarceration: A Visit to the Preston School of Industry

Peyton Marshall

I couldn’t sleep. It was June 2009 and I was returning from a friend’s wedding, staying in a cheap hotel outside of Sacramento. My husband was beside me, blissfully unconscious, as I sat there, stupefied by late night television, by the weeping beauty pageant contestants, by the pawn shop reality programs, by the people fighting in foam-padded suits. Over the years, insomnia had provided few benefits—a raw, twitchy nervous system, for example, or a suspicion on some days that my brain had been replaced with boiled ham—but all that was about to change.

Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall
Barnes and Noble

I’d recently started working on the book that would become Goodhouse. I’d been sketching different characters and scenes, unsure how everything fit together. I knew the book was set in a future version of a reform school—a place where the state was attempting to rehabilitate boys born with a genetic propensity for violence. But I couldn’t see where any of the writing was really going—not in a linear way. I was working within some kind of narrative cloud, and these scenes were like atoms orbiting a mysterious, unseen core.

And then, in that dingy hotel room, insomnia paid off. A new program was starting, a paranormal investigation show with several muscle-bound hosts—linebacker-sized men who sprinted through dark hallways, startling at the smallest sounds. That particular episode was set in the now-shuttered Preston School of Industry, a boy’s reform school founded in 1894 in Ione California. The institution itself had been housed in a giant Romanesque castle built on a hill. A grand and imposing structure that was thought embody a new way of thinking, a new commitment to reform instead incarceration, the Preston School was now in ruinous decay. I muted the volume on the television and just stared the structure itself; huge and turreted, built to intimidate and inspire, it looked like a castles from European antiquity, not a part of contemporary American justice.

I sat up in bed. I actually felt my heart beat faster, spurred on by a jolt of recognition. I’d never had a moment like this before. This was my setting.

“Oh God,” I said, elbowing my husband, maybe a little too enthusiastically. “That’s it.”

“What’s happening?” he said, sitting up. “What’s going on?”

“That’s it,” I said. I pointed to the television. “We’re going to go there.”

He groaned and lay back down. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

“Not right now,” I said. “But soon.”

Preston School of Industry School Boy

I found out I was pregnant a week before we drove to visit the Preston School. The easiest way to the see the campus had been to sign up for one of the overnight paranormal investigation tours, a little like the one I’d seen on television. My husband and I took our friends—the filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher—and we drove from Portland, Oregon to Ione. I hadn’t told anyone about the baby. Which, in fact, would, turn out to be two babies. I’d spent the past few months reading the memoirs of boys caught up in the California Youth Authority in the early part of the 20th century. I’d been surrounding myself with their voices, seeing the old campus through their eyes.

By the mid-twentieth century, Preston School of Industry was widely known as the worst place that a juvenile offender could be held. It had not become beacon of reform, but a place of punishment, a last resort before jail. Students lived in dormitories according to their status. They performed military style drills and were governed by class captains and lieutenants—who received shortened sentences and who often established their authority by beating new inmates. The best way to become a class captain was to put the existing one in the hospital, and by doing so his take his place. No one was reformed, not for the better, anyway.

It took two days to get from Portland to Sacramento and from there we traveled east on CA-16. We passed two giant nuclear cooling towers, both of them surrounded by vineyards. Then, just outside of Ione, we saw the Mule Creek State Prison, with its fences topped by razor wire, its windows tall and narrow like medieval arrow slits. I looked for the Preston Castle as we drove into town but I only glimpsed the edges of the current Preston Youth Correctional Facility—a collection of squat, modern buildings surrounded by fences and more razor wire. Large wooden guard towers had been erected at intervals along its fence.

Ione, itself, was a quaint little gold-rush style town complete with a saloon, a whorehouse and many false-front buildings, constructed to look like more than they were. But mounted on every downtown lightpost was a megaphone. These were sirens, used to warn the town when there was a breakout at the juvenile facility or at Mule Creek. When we went to get coffee, I asked the barista: “Does that happen a lot?”

“Sometimes,” she said.

“And what do you do when you hear the sirens?”

She shrugged. “We just keep working.”

It was late September but still extremely hot. When we got to the Preston Castle, I remember walking up to the building and feeling the day’s intense heat still trapped in the brick, radiating outwards, like the structure itself was alive. A dozen ghost hunters with expensive cameras and other equipment gathered in the entrance. We all had sleeping bags and gear and were told that we’d be divided into groups and led into different parts of the castle. Outside of the reception area nothing had been upgraded. There was no electricity, no running water. Chunks of plaster had fallen off the walls, and broad sections of flooring had collapsed and were unsafe.

Ghost Hunters

What does it mean to correct and rehabilitate? When does error occur and who is allowed to define the terms of it? Identity is powerful. Who you perceive yourself to be is shaped at a young age, informed by family and society and history. These are mostly forces beyond your control, and as a child—you are simply governed by them. At some point, who you are and who you are supposed to be must collide.

Halfway through the tour, sirens began to sound. I turned and walked away from the group, stepping outside to see the neighboring facility lit up with searchlights. A vehicle full of uniformed guards drove along the fence at high speed. A message began to echo and repeat: “We have released the K-9 unit. Do not run. The dogs will bite you. The dogs will bite you.” Another vehicle sped past and I put my hand over the tiny child inside me, the person I’d never met, whose voice I couldn’t yet imagine.

I’d thought to visit Ione to stare into the past, to listen to vanished voices—but here was this moment—unfolding in front of me. Somewhere on campus a young man was hiding. He was crouching in the dark, or maybe he was running despite the warning—running though there was nowhere to go, though he could not hope to escape.
Peyton Marshall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Blackbird, Etiqueta Negra, FiveChapters, and Best New American Voices 2004. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Goodhouse is her first novel.
Peyton Marshall

Photos by Michael Palmieri.