Unlocking History

1940s Yacht Bandit scandal helped shape today’s CDCR

Warden's house and guard houses at Folsom State Prison.
Outside the walls of Folsom Prison, undated.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

A correctional system established in the California Gold Rush was upended by an unlikely source – an inmate at Folsom Prison. Troubles plaguing the second-oldest prison in California sparked an investigation, the suspension of the Warden and a shakeup of California’s entire prison system.

In 2014, CDCR marked seven decades since the formation of department. The mission and words, “and Rehabilitation,” were officially added in 2005.

Founding a new corrections department

The modern California correctional system was founded in 1944 after a series of issues at Folsom Prison.

“The committee will pursue its investigations until all the facts are developed,” said Gov. Earl Warren in 1943. “We’re going to put our finger on the immediate sore spot, which is Folsom Prison, but the committee also will investigate conditions in all the prisons.”

The scandal involved Lloyd E. Sampsell, a Folsom Prison inmate serving a life sentence for robbing two banks in 1929. Known for eluding police by using a yacht, he was dubbed the “Yacht Bandit.”

Sampsell tried to escape Folsom Prison twice before, once successfully in 1930. He also escaped from Missouri State Reformatory in 1918.

Somehow, despite his history and previous escape attempts, he was able to leave a Davis-area Folsom Prison-run harvest camp and make numerous unsupervised trips to San Francisco and Sacramento in the early 1940s. The state’s prison farm camps were run as part of the war effort during World War II.

Everything came to a head when Sampsell was arrested at the San Francisco apartment of his girlfriend.

Men sit under a tree and eat lunch near a pasture.
Lunchtime at Prado Harvest Camp, 1945.

Camp inmates wandered into town

According to the 1943 transcript of the investigation into Folsom Prison and the Davis harvest camp, law enforcement was aware of problems at the camp and tried alerting the prison many times.

Tom Pendergast, a parole agent from Sacramento, recounted some incidents.

“Deputy Sheriff McReynolds of Yolo County … informed me that several of the prisoners on the harvest crew at the Straloch Farm near Davis were frequenting the Swallows Nest Café near the Davis ‘Y’ and playing the slot machines,” Pendergast said. “He said he and another officer … traveling along the highway at night with their automobile … noticed two men walking along the road. As (they) approached, these men (darted) through the fence into the field.”

Pendergast said the officers tried using their spotlight but the men hid and then ran away. According to Pendergast, they believed the Folsom Prison Warden should be made aware of the problems at the harvest camp.

“I immediately telephoned the institution and asked for Warden Plummer and was informed that he wasn’t there,” Pendergast said. “I asked for Egan (the Clerk) and was told both (were) gone. I then asked to … speak to Captain Ryan and was told he was on annual vacation leave.”

He was finally able to get in touch with a lieutenant and explained the situation, who said he would inform the warden.

Investigator: ‘Inmates in charge’

According to Pendergast, a string of burglaries resulted in a joint effort by the Yolo County Sheriff, Dixon Chief of Police and a Deputy Sheriff from Solano County to get to the bottom of the problem. They sought help and information from Pendergast and Folsom Prison officials.

Julian Alco, serving on the Board of Prison Directors, was one of the committee’s lead investigators.

“On June 13, there was a single man in evidence when I inspected the (Folsom Prison) hospital,” he told the commission. “(There was) no doctor. Inmates in charge. Certain inmates had keys to various rooms and cells. … Assigned to the hospital (work detail) were 25 former narcotic addicts.”

Alco asked Warden Plummer for a “detailed statement from him relative to the escape of Sampsell,” referring to the inmate’s San Francisco arrest.

The Warden declined but did answer direct questions, but only informally and not in writing, according to Alco.

Taking inmates to a bar

A Davis woman told investigators multiple inmates frequented her home, usually accompanied by one of the inmates she was seeing.

“She had accompanied the convicts to Sacramento to drink in a bar and also had obtained liquor for them at Davis Junction,” according to an investigator from San Quentin Prison who assisted the committee.

As for Sampsell, investigators confiscated numerous letters addressed to him, penned by San Francisco girlfriend Jacqueline de la Prevotiere.

“Some of the letters were of a rather passionate nature and in one she refers to tonic being sent to him through the mail, intimating it was whiskey,” the investigator stated.

Man with numbers 18586A on his chest.
While on parole, Lloyd Sampsell shot and killed someone during a holdup in 1948.

What happened to Sampsell?

While Sampsell’s activities served as a catalyst for change in the state prison system, personal change was not in the cards for the career criminal.

He was paroled from prison in September 1947 and a year later, robbed a San Diego bank. In the process, he killed a bystander, earning him the death penalty.

His escapades made headlines around the world. A 1952 issue of The Courier Mail from Brisbane, Australia, wrote, “Lloyd E. Sampsell, convicted bank robber and murderer, awaited his execution … insisting, ‘You can’t say my life was wasted.’

“Barring last-minute delay, Sampsell, 52, will go to the San Quentin prison gas chamber.

“‘They say I have led a wasted life,’ said Sampsell, who has spent half his life in prison. ‘But, look,’ he told a reporter, ‘here is something, I have never told anyone. I have a son. … He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service, overseas right now. A good boy. So I have left something good. You can’t say my life was wasted,'” the newspaper reported.

Sampsell was executed April 25, 1952.

The fallout

Gov. Warren called Sampsell’s apparent lack of supervision and freedom to take trips “outrageous.”

Earl Warren smiles in a portrait photograph.
California Governor Earl Warren.

According to the San Francisco girlfriend, Warden Plummer was aware of the trips and thought she was a good influence on Sampsell.

According to Sampsell, no prison officials ever asked him about his trips and he was allowed to roam as he pleased.

As the Governor and his investigative team learned, Sampsell had somehow gained influence at Folsom Prison.

“Reports of a convict hierarchy at Folsom Prison under the administration of suspended Warden Plummer have reached Governor Earl Warren’s special investigating committee,” reported a Dec. 3, 1943, issue of the Bakersfield Californian. “Lloyd Sampsell, serving a life term for bank robbery, and Ralph Sheldon, convicted kidnapper, were understood to have been regarded by other inmates and even by guards as ‘convict bosses’ who could influence assignments.”

The newspaper also stated, “Sheldon is serving an 83-year term for the kidnapping of E. L. Caress and his wife, of Los Angeles, in 1930 and the subsequent shooting of a policeman in Long Beach.”

According to the newspaper, Sampsell was second-in-charge of the hierarchy with Sheldon as the leader.

“Influence of the two inmates … extended so far that guards who failed to meet with their approval found themselves suddenly transferred to other duties, according to other inmates and civilian employees,” the newspaper reported at the time.

The Final Report of the Governor’s Investigation Committee on Penal Affairs, dated Jan. 21, 1944, found “several prison officials, guards and prisoners protested concerning the power and influence exerted by certain prisoners upon whom the warden depended for secretarial assistance.” Also, “The captain of the guard and others stated that on numerous occasions the warden would countermand their instructions without consulting them.”

The report indicated “con-bosses … were permitted to do many things which gave them too much control of certain activities within the prison. … The granting of unusual privileges to prisoners contributed greatly to the low morale of the guard line.”

San Quentin fared better in the report with the hospital and job-training areas receiving high marks.

As for inmate employment at San Quentin, “the industrial program is very ambitious. It includes Army and Navy contracts, the processing of tobacco, twine, cargo nets, cargo slings, submarine nets, furniture, landing boats, laundry work, salvaging, mess trays, bearings, sirens, reconditioning mine buoys and many other articles of a value of over a million dollars.”

Time for change

The committee recommended a complete overhaul of the system.

When the Department was officially formed in 1944, there were four institutions: San Quentin State Prison, Folsom State Prison, the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi and the California Institution for Men at Chino.

With World War II raging in the 1940s, many inmates were paroled to enter the service and fight for their country. Some industrial programs within institutions were retooled to help with the war effort.

On May 1, 1944, Gov. Warren and the State officially established the California Department of Corrections.

A group of men pose for a photo of the steps of a building.
Richard A. McGee, second from left in the front row, circa 1961. (CDCR file photo.)

The first Director

Richard A. McGee was named the first Director of the California Department of Corrections.

Man wearing tie and jacket smiles.
Richard A. McGee was California’s first Director of Corrections.

He reported to work on April 20, 1944, just days before the Department officially began operations. His first task was to deal with issues uncovered by the investigative panel’s inquiry into the old prison system.

McGee was no stranger to prisons. In Pennsylvania, he worked for a federal prison to establish an education department. Later, in the mid-1930s, he oversaw the completion of the prison on Riker’s Island in New York City.

In Washington state, he implemented medical and feeding programs at each institution, including prison dairies and farms. He also established job classifications and job descriptions for every employee as a way to address problems with political patronage plaguing the system, according to a 2002 issue of CDC Today.

During his tenure as CDC Director, eight prisons opened. In 1961, he became the administrator of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

In 1971, he retired from state service and became president of the American Justice Institute. McGee passed away in 1983.

Adding the “R” to CDCR

Another major change in the Department was felt six decades later in 2005. Based on findings of the Corrections Independent Review Panel, established by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February 2004, the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (YACA) and the departments and boards within YACA became the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The reorganization and renaming of the Department was effective July 1, 2005.

Governor Warren’s legacy

In 1964, former Gov. Earl Warren was invited to attend a 20th anniversary dinner to commemorate the founding of the department.

In a letter responding to the invitation, Warren said he was unable to attend as he had “been hard put for time, because of the additional work occasioned by the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.”

Warren left the Governorship in 1953 and for 11 years had been in Washington, D.C.

In 1964, he was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His commission’s findings on the Kennedy assassination, commonly referred to as the Warren Commission Report, were released in September.

In former Gov. Warren’s letter, he wrote the Department’s formation brought “California out of the dark ages in the field of penology and ushered in a period of enlightenment.”

Did you know?

Man in jacket and tie poses for portrait.
California State Senator Charles Deuel.

Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy was named for the late state Senator Charles Deuel who sponsored legislation establishing the institution.  Sen. Deuel was also part of Governor Warren’s investigative committee which led to the formation of the California Department of Corrections in 1944. He was first elected to the state Assembly in 1924 and the state Senate in 1930. Sen. Deuel died in office in 1947 at age 79.

Deuel was also the editor and publisher of the Chico Record newspaper from 1897 until 1945, when he and his partner, B.C. Richards, sold the newspaper, according to a volunteer researcher with the Chico Heritage Association. In 1948, the town’s two newspapers merged and today the paper is known as the Chico Enterprise-Record.

DVI opened in 1953 and was expanded in 1959, 1981 and 1993.

the first 50 years

  • 1944: Senate Bill No. 1 passed, establishing the Department of Corrections. Richard A. McGee named Director of Corrections by California Gov. Earl G. Warren.
  • 1945: Guards officially became known as Correctional Officers after the Department of Corrections first set of rules and regulations was issued. Inmate Welfare Fund established for the benefit, education and welfare of inmates, funded by profits from inmate canteens, handicraft sales and donations.
  • 1946: Statewide educational and vocational programs were established. Trade Advisory Council established. Also, Deuel Vocational Institution, originally called the California Vocational Institution, first opened at an abandoned Army base near Lancaster. Prison was moved to its present location near Tracy in 1953. Another institution, Correctional Training Facility at Soledad, opened (originally known as Medium Security Prison at Soledad, operating as a unit of San Quentin).
  • 1947: Correctional Industries became operational. It was renamed Prison Industry Authority in 1983 and was designed to employ inmates and work with representatives of private industry and labor.
  • 1950: California Medical Facility began operation at Terminal Island. The new facility provided treatment for mentally impaired and chronically ill inmates. Facility moved to Vacaville in 1955.
  • 1952: After an earthquake, California Institution for Women opened near Corona.1953: California Youth Authority established. Group counseling first established at Folsom Prison, rolling out at all prisons (except CMF) by 1954.
  • 1954: California Men’s Colony (west) Opened in 1954 at San Luis Obispo. The east facility opened in 1961.
  • 1955: California Correctional Institution opened, replacing the old damaged women’s prison at Tehachapi. Prison repurposed to house men.
  • 1957: Paroles moved to the California Department of Corrections. Responsibility to oversee female parolees wasn’t transferred to CDC until 1963. Also, the CDC’s Research Unit was established.1959: Conservation Division created to oversee the camps program.
  • 1961: Civil Addict Program and Work Furlough Program authorized by State Legislature.
  • 1962: California Rehabilitation Center opened at Norco to treat civil narcotic addicts.1963: California Conservation Center at Susanville open to managed conservation camps. Renamed California Correctional Center in 1973.
  • 1965: Sierra Conservation Center at Jamestown developed to manage prison conservation camps in Central and Southern California. Also, Parole Work Unit concept initiated in which agents with higher-risk parolees were given smaller caseloads and expected to provide increased supervision. Also, Psychiatric Treatment Unit established at CMF.
  • 1966: Work Furlough Program established. Alcoholics Anonymous Program initiated in prison system.
  • 1967: First family visiting program initiated at CCI at Tehachapi with the program extended to all prisons by 1976. Also, first male officer assigned to a women’s facility, the women’s unit at CRC at Norco.
  • 1968: Temporary Community Release authorized by State Legislature.
  • 1971: First female Correctional Officer position established and the first female assigned to a male prison at CTF, Soledad.
  • 1972: First Correctional Training Center established to train new Correctional Officers at Modesto Junior College. The program was expanded to a six-week academy and moved to Galt in 1983.
  • 1973: First CDC attorneys hired to handle increasing court actions.
  • 1975: Inmate Bill of Rights enacted by State Legislature. The Bill granted inmates absolute rights to have visits, own property, marry in prison and receive published materials. Later court rulings said restrictions on inmate rights must directly relate to the safety and security of the institution.
  • 1981: First prison bond issue passed by California voters, allocated $395 million for new prison construction.
  • 1982: Midge Carroll appointed first female warden of a men’s prison (California Institution for Men at Chino). Also, Victims’ Bill of Rights was passed by California voters (Proposition 8), giving victims or their next of kin the right to be heard during criminal proceedings about the crime, the offender and the economic or emotional loss they suffered.
  • 1984: CSP-Solano opened at Vacaville. Originally was part of CMF but two prisons split in 1992. Also, $300 million prison bond issue passed by California voters.
  • 1986: CSP-Sacramento opened in Folsom as an adjunct to Folsom Prison. Became a fully separate prison in 1992. Also, $500 million prison bond issue passed by California voters.
  • 1987: Avenal SP and Northern California Women’s Facility opened.
  • 1988: CSP-Corcoran and Chuckawalla Valley SP opened. Also, $817 million prison bond issue passed by California voters.
  • 1989: Pelican Bay SP opened near Crescent City.
  • 1990: Central California Women’s Facility opened near Chowchilla and at the time was believed to be the largest women’s prison in the world. Also, $450 million prison bond issue passed by California voters. Also, Joint Venture initiative passed by voters which allowed private employers to contract with the CDC and hire inmates as employees.1991: Wasco State Prison opened, serving primarily as a processing center for incoming inmates.
  • 1992: CSP-Calipatria opened.1993: CSP-Los Angeles County, CSP-Centinela and North Kern SP opened.
  • 1994: Ironwood SP and Pleasant Valley SP opened. Also, Inmate Bill of Rights modified to allow CDC to limit those rights based on “legitimate penological interests.”