A Maximum Security Prison

Tule Lake Historic 02

This photo from the California Military Museum shows the Stockade front and center at Tule Lake.  The jail, which was built shortly after the photo was taken, was adjacent to the Stockade compound. Both feature heavily in the rest of this story.

Tule Lake started out as one of the 10 regular WRA prison Camps. The WRA leadership quickly mishandled (and in some cases abused) the process of questioning the 110,000 people who had been taken to the WRA camps about their loyalty to the United States.  This may have been driven by a U.S. Government assumption that Japanese Americans were not loyal.

The whole questioning process was basically an unmitigated disaster.  The questionnaire that the government used was put together without any consultation whatsoever with Japanese American leaders.  Even for simple questions this created difficulties.  For questions 27 and 28, the process created terrible problems:

  • Question number 27 was especially problematic for second generation men. It asked if  they were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered. This, despite the fact that their families were imprisoned without due process.
  • Question number 28 was deeply problematic for first generation men and women.  It asked individuals if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan.  It is Important to Note: 1) a racially based federal law prevented first generation Japanese American men and women from becoming U.S. citizens; therefore, 2) a “Yes” answer could easily make them persons without a state (a dangerous position in the middle of a world war), many of whom were being threatened with deportation.
  • The questionnaire  allowed for only “Yes” or “No” answers to the loyalty questions.
  • A “No” answer meant that the person was branded “Disloyal.”
  • A “Yes” answer qualified by comments about the injustice of the WRA internment was also branded “Disloyal.”
  • The two questions were poorly explained in several of the Camps (including Tule Lake). There was considerable pressure to comply, and there was substantial resistance to the entire process.
  • The two questions weren’t really questions…they were demands masquerading as questions.
  • Beyond this, the questions were asked of people who had been imprisoned without charges or a trial. Any normal person in this circumstance would have had reservations about the questions and would have been reluctant to just blindly answer “Yes” as the government demanded.

[Source: Densho Digital Encyclopedia]

The loyalty questioning could have been the stuff of satire and late night comedy.  However, it was no joke.  It was yet another tragic aspect of the process of taking Americans to the WRA Camps.

In July 1943, after the loyalty questioning debacle, the government decided that it needed a maximum security prison within the WRA Camp system for all of the “Disloyal” Japanese Americans.  The Government chose Tule Lake.  Tule Lake WRA Camp became that maximum security prison and was renamed “The Tule Lake Segregation Center.”  A battalion of U.S. Army Military Police was brought in, complete with armored vehicles, to maintain order at the prison Camp. This set in motion a huge movement of people between the WRA Camps.

  • “Loyal” people in Tule Lake were shipped out to other WRA Camps.
  • “Disloyal” people from the other WRA Camps were brought to Tule Lake.
  • Some people in Tule Lake who were “Loyal” elected to remain in Tule Lake in order to be close to family members who were “Disloyal.”
  • Eventually, 18,789 Americans came to live in Tule Lake, in a prison camp designed for 16,000 people.

There was no due process if you were branded disloyal, were sent to the Stockade, or were put in the Jail. An arbitrary decision, by some combination of civilian and military authorities at Tule Lake, sent one to the Stockade or to the Jail.  There was never any explanation. There were no hearings or trials.  People just ended up behind an additional row of barbed wire and possibly in a concrete blockhouse-style jail.

“…then as I recall, from one side of the camp the military came with a list of people and the administration came from the other side, and they picked up all the people on that list. And my brother’s name and my name was on that list. Why, we don’t know.”

K. Morgan Yamanaka, Tule Lake [Source: Densho Digital Repository]

Jail 01

This is a picture of the jail now.  It is a concrete blockhouse, built by prisoners in the Camp. Several years ago, Caltrans built a steel cover for the building to prevent further deterioration of the concrete.

Jail 02

This is a picture of one of the jail cells.  The steel gate, steel beds, and toilet have been removed.

Jail 03 National Archives

This photo shows the same cell crammed full of inmates in late 1943 or early 1944. Conditions were unbelievably cramped.  The Jail was designed for 20 prisoners; 100 were crammed into the block building.

[Source: National Archives]

Jail 04 Tule Lake Committee

This photo shows the guards manhandling a prisoner.  You can see that people were sleeping on cots in the corridor.

[Source: The Tule Lake Committee]

Jail 05 National Archives

This is an image of one of the steel cage structures that enclosed the cells.  The steel cage pieces are presently in storage awaiting restoration of the Jail.

[Source: National Archives]

The Stockade

The Stockade was located on the Western side of the Camp. The Stockade compound included:

  • An open area surround by a high barbed wire fence.
  • Two barracks buildings.
  • A mess hall.
  • A latrine building.

The Stockade was designed for 100 prisoners; 400 were crammed in there.

Stockade under construction DDR

This is the stockade under construction in 1943.  [Source: Densho Digital Repository]

Terror was a frequent visitor to the Stockade.  It often involved late night harassment by the Military Police. Here is Morgan Yamanaka talking about midnight raids at the Stockade Barracks…

“As a matter of fact, one of the times in my life I was actually scared was when, one of those midnight raids — are you familiar with Thompson sub-machine gun, the round cartridge? That Thompson machine gun was aimed at my belly by a young soldier who seemed to be shaking because he was scared. Well, I know something about arms because in martial arts we were studying arms. His trigger finger was on the trigger. Well, if you’re shaking like this the damn finger could… and I’m aware of this, so I think that was about the only time in my life I was physically scared.”

K. Morgan Yamanaka, Tule Lake [Source: Densho Digital Repository]

The conversion of the Tule Lake Camp to a maximum security prison was the harshest feature of the WRA Camp system.  With its methods, the Tule Lake Prison Camp magnified the violation of due process that was inherent the imprisonment of 110,000 Japanese Americans in the WRA Camps in the first place. It was a dark, enduring chapter.

“A Place of Solace…”

Place of Solace

This is a photo of Castle Rock, and its peninsula.  It is the most prominent nearby geographic feature and was visible from anywhere in the Camp. Castle Rock provided a place of solace for many people who were imprisoned in Tule Lake.  Up until the summer of 1943, when Tule Lake became a maximum security prison, people from the Camp were able to walk up the mountain at specified times.  It became a place of religious observation and spiritual meditation.

Tule Lake was a complex prison camp, and I have only scratched the surface. I will miss being there, looking for stories, solving mysteries. Hopefully, I’ll be back, perhaps at the next remembrance gathering there.  Thanks for going with me on the journey to this troubling place.

Soon, I will begin preparations for visiting the two WRA Camps in Arkansas.

In the meantime, I wish you continued blessings of grace and peace,



2 Comments on “A Maximum Security Prison

  1. Art =

    This is hard for me to read and comprehend – My maternal grandparents came to America on boats and extremely bad conditions but nothing like prison camps – they lost one sibling in the transit – they also rarely talked about it even tho when they died I knew a little – I also knew their siblings were basically undocumented aliens – Some of them never registered and despite being property owners, business owners and taxpayers they were illegal – Oh my. For some reason my grandparents were registered and eventually became citizens but were the minority in the family – They were Polish or Russian or Yugoslavian – I’m not sure –

    Thanks a bunch for sharing – I have a lot to think about with everything you have written –

    Take care –



    • Linda, thanks for your comments. We all have stories to consider… I appreciate so much your sharing yours. Grace and peace for the journey! Art


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