Rafu Staff Report
FONTANA — Veteran civil rights advocate Jerry Enomoto, the first Asian American to head the state Department of Corrections, died Jan. 17 due to natural causes at the age of 89.
Incarcerated at Tule Lake during World War II, Enomoto was a two-time national president of the Japanese American Citizens League and led JACL’s Legislative Education Committee, which lobbied for passage of the redress bill, HR 442, later known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 when it was signed by President Reagan.
Enomoto also served as U.S. marshal of the Eastern District of California, another first for Asian Americans. He retired from that post in 2002 after 45 years of public service, including 28 at the Department of Corrections.
He and his wife, Dorothy Stevens Enomoto, a native of Atlanta, granddaughter of a former slave and the first African American woman to serve as a manager (deputy director) at the California Department of Corrections, have been active in the Sacramento-area civil rights community.
“I am deeply saddened upon hearing the passing of former National President Jerry Enomoto,” said David Lin, current JACL national president. “Jerry led JACL admirably from 1966 to 1970. He was a staunch civil rights champion with a distinguished career in public service. JACL benefited tremendously from his leadership and vision and we will always be grateful to his many contributions to the JACL. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Dorothy and his entire family.”
Floyd Mori, who has served as national president and executive director of JACL, said in a Facebook post, “Jerry Enomoto has been a civil rights champion during his whole life. He was central in the Japanese American fight for redress after their unconstitutional incarceration during World War II. He headed the California prison system during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term. We are better off because of his work.”
Former Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) called Enomoto “a trailblazer and warrior for justice.”
Ronald Ikejiri was JACL’s Washington, D.C. representative in 1979 when Enomoto testified before a congressional committee in favor of the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Ikejiri quoted Enomoto as saying, “As a corrections officer, I can tell you that the incarceration of the American Japanese was not for their protection … It was a ‘lock-down.’ And, as the head of corrections for the State of California, I know what a ‘lock-down’ implies. This was a ‘lock-down.’”
Services are pending.
A native of San Francisco, Enomoto attended that city’s prestigious Lowell High School but his education was abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. As his father was in Japan at the time, he became the head of his family. He graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class while interned at Tule Lake. After his release, he served in the U.S. Army. Upon completion of military service, he returned to California to pursue a college education and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Berkeley.
In recognition of his outstanding service to the Department of Corrections as a counselor at San Quentin Prison, Enomoto was tapped by Gov. Ronald Reagan to become the first Asian Pacific American to serve as a state prison warden. A few years later, as director of corrections, he became the first Asian Pacific American to manage a state department in California history.
As the first Asian Pacific American appointed as a U.S. marshal, he worked to bring together local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies and improve the communities that cover the Eastern District, which consisted of 34 inland counties stretching from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. Under Enomoto’s leadership, the district received the attorney general’s Volunteer and Community Services Award.
For his leadership role in the successful campaign to win redress payments and an apology for Japanese Americans who were interned, Enomoto received the JACL’s highest honor, Japanese American of the Biennium, in 1992.
He and his wife married in 1982 and lived in Sacramento’s Greenhaven neighborhood for many years. They participated in the Greater Sacramento Area Hate Crimes Task Force and were involved in organizing an annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dinner. The couple appeared in “A Beautiful Blend: Mixed Race in America,” a 2005 documentary produced by KVIE in Sacramento.
Reporter Suzanne Phan of ABC10 in Sacramento posted on Facebook, “Very sad to learn this news on Monday afternoon. I had called Dorothy and Jerry Enomoto on MLK Day hoping to say hello. Dorothy had gone to school with Martin Luther King Jr. and I remember her story that she and Dr. King were co-valedictorians. Through a mutual friend, I had learned that Jerry, Dorothy’s husband, had passed away on Sunday — the day before MLK Day.”
In a speech on the House floor in 2002 marking Enomoto’s retirement, Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento) said, “As Jerry’s friends, family, and colleagues gather to celebrate his great career, I am honored to pay tribute to one of Sacramento’s most honorable citizens. Jerry’s continuous leadership is a true testament to public service. If a template for leadership could be made, it would surely bear the resemblance of my dear friend, Jerry Enomoto. Although his career in law enforcement may be over, his involvement in community service is, fortunate for us, far from over.”
An advocate for incarcerated youth, Enomoto supported the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which would have provided for the review of life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders in California. In a 2009 letter to then State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Enomoto wrote:
“There is considerable evidence that juveniles under the age of 18 have the capacity for change, given the necessary help. There is also evidence that LWOP has been unfairly imposed, particularly as it applies to minorities. In any event, LWOP is a penalty that gives no hope for release, and is not a reasonable penalty to impose upon a juvenile…
“Granted, these cases often involve heinous offenses that many feel deserve the death penalty. However, just as the death penalty is inappropriate for juveniles, so is LWOP. SB 399 offers a young offender the hope that their LWOP sentence might be reconsidered. This hope gives prisoners the reason to change.”