The facility was opened in 1953 and named for the late California state Senator Charles Deuel who sponsored legislation establishing the institution. The facility has been expanded and reorganized several times, in 1959, 1981 and 1993. Its current head warden is Claude Finn.
Today the primary purpose of DVI is to serve as a reception center for newly-committed prisoners to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from northern California county jails. The facility also houses a small number of minimum- and low-security inmates (classified by CDCR as levels I and II) and provides some Prison Industries Authority (PIA) facilities at a dairy and a furniture fabrication plant. As of January 2006, the total count of prisoners at DVI was 3,748, with 3,162 of that number assigned to the reception center.
As a result of DVI's primary function as a reception center, in which a large number of felons of different propensities for violence, disciplinary and security issues pass through before being classified and transferred to other facilities, DVI has a long-standing reputation for being violent and dangerous. The facility use to be referred to as "gladiator school" by inmates and staff. This was due to the fact that DVI was widely known for the fights that took place within the prison walls.
DVI also has a 110-inmate farm. There they grow vegetables for the prison, raise cattle for slaughter, and raise dairy cows for milk supplied to the school systems in the area.