Inmates clean up cemetery, controversial grave markers

A cemetery tucked away on the border of El Dorado Hills and Folsom received a sprucing up thanks to prison inmates on Friday.

Known as the California Prison Industry Authority, the program provides inmates job skills they can use to find employment after release. During Friday’s cleanup, eight inmates were at the Mormon island Relocation Cemetery with a correctional officer standing watch. They raked, scrubbed and knocked down weeds.

California State Prison inmate Raymond Richards, 25, scrubs one of the grave markers that have garnered so much attention lately. Richards was one of eight inmates at the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery in El Dorado Hills Friday to help clean the site through the California Prison Industries Authority program.

According to Marcus Dawson, staff services manager with the prisoner training program, the Cal-PIA hopes to offer their services to replace the markers that bear a derogatory term. They are hoping to partner with an organization to supply the granite.

“Basically, we could provide the labor at no cost,” Dawson said. “Cal-PIA comes to the rescue.”

As reported in the Telegraph, there are 36 grave markers created by an Auburn-based contractor that read, “Unknown, Moved from (N-word) Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government — 1954.”

The bodies and gravestones were moved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from their resting places more than 60 years ago to make way for Folsom reservoir, commonly known today at Folsom Lake, created by the completion of Folsom Dam. According to the contract the Army Corps has with Bill Gross, of Auburn, the wording on the grave markers had to be approved and provided to Gross. The Corps issued an official apology when they released all documents related to the project a few weeks ago.

Numerous mining settlements and private cemeteries were relocated from the area to El Dorado Hills in 1954.

The prison program’s proposal would create a monument, preserving one of the “n-word” grave markers, to explain the history and the story behind the common use of the word at the time.

“We want to replace the headstones, not to take away history, but to (educate),” Dawson said. “We want to keep a marker to use with a monument to tell the history of the growth of a state and the growth of a nation.”

Terry Shupe, a civilian who helps train the inmates, represents the Local 46 Carpenters Union.

“We’re cleaning (the cemetery) and finding out what they want,” Shupe said. “They want some benches (and) a monument.”

Shupe said the program, which is in danger of losing its funding as of June 30, helps instill a sense of civic duty and pride in the inmates who go through it. Many of them find jobs after they are released and few return to prison.

According to the Cal-PIA, only 15 percent of inmates who go through the program end up behind bars again. That’s compared to the state average of 54 percent of inmates returning to prison within two years of their release, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“We are the ‘R’ in the CDCR,” said Dawson, referring to “rehabilitation.”

Shupe said that every inmate who goes through the program and finds a job is saving the taxpayers, and the state, money.

“We save the state $55,000 per year, per (reformed inmate),” Shupe said. “They also become taxpayers.”

Raymond Richards, 25, is an inmate who is due to be released at the end of July.

“I think (Cal-PIA) is great,” he said. “It helps people learn things so when they get out, they can do better things.”

As he scrubbed away at one of “N-word” Hill Cemetery grave markers, he said the program has helped him gain a new perspective.

“It’s helped me,” Richards said. “It’s helped me become a better person.”

According to Dawson, that’s what the program is all about.

“We have inmates out here to put into practice what they’ve learned in the classroom,” Dawson said. “They get to come into the community and make a difference. … It’s (about) changed lives.”


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