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Gallery: Zoot Suit Riots

On January 12, 1943, twelve Los Angeles young men convicted of murder were sentenced to jail terms of five years to life in San Quentin State Prison. California's oldest correctional facility was -- and still is -- situated on a beautiful parcel of land on San Francisco Bay, almost 400 miles away from L.A.

The Sleepy Lagoon boys arrived at a relatively good moment in the prison's history. Beginning in 1940, reform-minded Warden Clinton T. Duffy, the son of a former prison guard, instigated major educational, recreational, and other rehabilitative programs. He believed inmates would redeem themselves if given the chance.

Duffy abolished corporal punishment, knocked down the dungeon, fired brutal guards, and eliminated the use of whips. Most importantly, Duffy recognized the humanity of San Quentin's inmates and gave them hope for the future. Many of the Sleepy Lagoon boys would put their time there to good use, working for the war effort, excelling in sports, and studying.

Warden Duffy's programs made prison life better than it might have been for the boys; Alice McGrath and the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee gave them hope for release from prison. Their letters from San Quentin show the gratitude and warmth they felt.

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