Tucson (detention facility)

US Gov Name Tucson Federal Prison Camp
Facility Type U.S. Federal Prison
Administrative Agency U.S. Bureau of Prisons
Location Santa Catalina Mountains (32.4167 lat, -110.7000 lng)
Date Opened
Date Closed
Population Description Held draft resisters mainly from Granada concentration camp, some from Poston and Topaz concentration camps; Gordon Hirabayashi, who was imprisoned after losing his Supreme Court case against the exclusion order, was transferred here to complete his sentence.
General Description Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains, northeast of Tucson, Arizona. The camp was established in 1939 within southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest to provide prison labor to build mountain highways.
Peak Population 46
National Park Service Info

The Tucson Federal Prison Camp, also known as the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, was a minimum-security honor camp built to house trustee-level felons. Originally built due to an agreement between the Bureau of Prisons, the Bureau of Public Roads, and the Arizona Highway Commission to use prison labor to build a new highway into the Catalina mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona, this prison housed war-resisters of various backgrounds during World War II. Most notably, Gordon Hirabayashi served his prison sentence for violating curfew and exclusion orders after he lost his appeal to the Supreme Court in 1943, followed by forty-one Nisei who served between six and twenty-four-month sentences for Selective Service violations in 1944. The site of the former prison, which is located on the Coronado National Forest, was renamed in 1999 the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

History of the Tucson Federal Prison Camp

The Tucson Federal Prison Camp inmates built a twenty-four-mile highway, from Gibbons Ranch, on the outskirts of Tucson, near the Catalina National Forest boundary, to Soldier Camp . The completed highway crests at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, gaining more than 5,200 feet in elevation from beginning to end. Prisoners began building the road during the summer of 1933. Initially, prisoners were housed in tents until a more permanent site could be developed in the Vail Corral Basin. The permanent site was opened in 1939, after prisoners had built more than seven miles of the road, making the permanent site accessible to more than pack mules.

As an honor camp, the Tucson Federal Prison camp had no bars or fences. Rows of painted rocks marked the boundaries of the prison. Prisoners housed in the camp had been convicted of federal crimes ranging from immigration-law violations, selling liquor to Indians, tax evasion, and bank robbery.

Wartime Prisoners, Wartime Prison

During World War II, prisoners began arriving who had resisted the draft, including Jehovahs Witnesses (JWs), Hopi, various conscientious objectors such as members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Molican Brethren, and Independents, adding to the existing population of inmates serving non-war related sentences. Gordon Hirabayshi stood out as the first Japanese American to arrive at the prison camp in 1943. He had lost his appeal to the Supreme Court. In an effort not to serve more time in a county jail, Hirabayashi hitchhiked to Tucson in order to serve his ninety-day sentence in a road camp. Neither Hirabayashi nor the attorney general who approved the transfer to Tucson knew that Tucson was well inside the exclusion zone. Also housed in Tucson were Japanese American draft resisters from Topaz , Utah, Amache , Colorado, Poston , Arizona, and one whose case originated from outside the War Relocation Authority camps who arrived under very different circumstances the following year. While the few resisters from Topaz were transported in relative comfort by car from the Salt Lake City County Jail to Tucson, the larger group of resisters, coming from the Denver County Jail, was transported in iron chains by train.

Rehabilitating Prisoners

Most aspects of life in the Tucson Federal Prison Camp epitomized the latest trends in federal prison reform and expansion. It was a minimum-security prison designed to hold only the most minor, nonviolent offenders. Prisons had become multi-tiered and diverse in their purposes and their treatment of prisoners. Judges also had gained more discretion over sentencing so they could better respond to convicted criminals individual circumstances. In Tucson, prisoners worked to build the road, learning skills in the process. This was part of prison reforms designed to rehabilitate inmates through meaningful forms of work and job skills training. Prisoners busted rocks in the least glamorous of cases, but some also learned how to use jackhammers, heavy equipment, and in the case of one Nisei resister, Ken Yoshida, he became a member of the blasting crew, learning how to plan and set explosives to break out new sections of rock. Gordon Hirabayashi petitioned to work in the camp kitchen and learned how to bake, which as he put it, made him quite popular with the other inmates.

In wartime, one of the most meaningful occupations available, according to penologists, was serving in the military. Every month, prison officials gave inmates at the Tucson Federal Prison Camp the chance to commute their sentences if they would join the military. For the first time in its history, the War Department agreed to grant all nonviolent offenders early parole from prison if they would enlist. Although no Nisei sent to Tucson ever accepted this offer, many other prisoners sentenced to the road camp did.

Living Conditions

Conditions at the road camp in Tucson stood in sharp contrast to the resisters experiences in the WRA camps and county jails. Some, like Ken Yoshida, began to wonder which had been the worse punishment: Prison or the relocation center? If they had left me in camp, Yoshida explained, I would have had a more miserable life…I didnt tell the government that. They might have sent me back to camp! The Nisei resisters enjoyed good food, good friends, hard work, and recreation all in a beautiful setting. They did not even have a fence to remind them of their confinement. In retrospect, many who served sentenced in Tucson called it summer camp. Some also contributed to the camp newspaper, the Roadrunner , with articles, such as one by Bill Nagasaki titled, Relocation and Its Consequences commenting on the problems associated with Japanese American relocation, or news of athletic competitions held in the prison camp.

Of the other draft resisters serving time in Tucson, the Nisei became best acquainted with the Hopi conscientious objectors. Most of the Tucsonians, the name the Nisei resisters used to refer to themselves in honor of their shared experience in the Tucson Federal Prison Camp, and Hopi resisters were housed in the mixed race barracks, or Barrack C.

Authored by Cherstin M. Lyon , California State University, San Bernardino

For More Information

Burton, Jeff, et. al. Catalina Federal Honor Camp, Tucson. In Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites . Available online at: http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anthropology74/ce18a1.htm .

Lyon, Cherstin. Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Last updated Aug. 24, 2020, 2:51 p.m..