Unlocking History

1940s Yacht Bandit scandal shaped today’s CDCR

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

A correctional system established in the California Gold Rush was upended by an unlikely source – the infamous Yacht Bandit 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.

Incarcerated camp workers 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. “(Then) 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 incarcerated workers to a bar

A Davis woman told investigators multiple prisoners frequented her home, usually accompanied by one of the prisoners 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, (hinting) it was whiskey,” the investigator stated.

What happened to Sampsell?

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

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 scandal’s 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, claiming she was a good influence on Sampsell.

Sampsell said no prison officials ever asked him about his trips, roaming as he pleased.

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

“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 the Bakersfield Californian, Dec. 3, 1943. “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.”

Sheldon was serving an 83-year sentence for shooting a police officer in 1930.

The con boss system

According to reports, Sampsell was second-in-charge of the hierarchy while Sheldon was 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 the newspaper.

The Final Report of the Governor’s Investigation Committee on Penal Affairs, dated Jan. 21, 1944, found “several prison officials, guards and prisoners protested the power and influence exerted by certain prisoners upon whom the warden depended for secretarial assistance.”

The report noted “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.

The work at San Quentin, “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, many were paroled to enter military service. Some industrial programs within institutions were also retooled to help the war effort.

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

McGee named first Director

Richard A. McGee served as 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. First, he had to deal with the problems identified by the investigation.

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, McGee established medical and feeding programs, as well as prison dairies and farms, at each institution.

He also established job classifications and job descriptions for every employee as a way to address problems with political patronage plaguing the system.

While serving as the CDC Director, eight prisons were activated. In 1961, McGee 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. The department’s training center in Galt is named in his honor.

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 became effective July 1, 2005.

Governor Warren’s legacy

In 1964, former 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.

Establishing the department, he wrote, 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 in honor of Senator Charles Deuel who sponsored legislation establishing the institution.  

Deuel was also part of Governor Warren’s investigative committee, directly leading to the formation of the California Department of Corrections in 1944.

First elected to the state Assembly in 1924, he was then elected to the state Senate in 1930. 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, becoming the Chico Enterprise-Record.

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

(UPDATE: The institution was deactivated in 2021.)

CDCR: The first 50 years

  • 1944: Senate Bill No. 1 passed, establishing the Department of Corrections. Richard A. McGee is named Director of Corrections by Gov. Earl G. Warren.
  • 1945: Guards officially became known as Correctional Officers. Inmate Welfare Fund established for the benefit, education and welfare of incarcerated, funded by profits from inmate canteens, handicraft sales and donations.
  • 1946: Statewide educational and vocational programs established, including the Trade Advisory Council. Also, Deuel Vocational Institution, originally called the California Vocational Institution, opens near Lancaster. Prison moves to Tracy in 1953. Meanwhile, Correctional Training Facility at Soledad opens.
  • 1947: Correctional Industries begins operations. Renamed Prison Industry Authority in 1983, CALPIA is designed to teach employable skills to incarcerated people, by partnering with representatives of private industry and labor.
  • 1950: California Medical Facility begins operation at Terminal Island, offering treatment for mentally impaired and chronically ill. Facility moved to Vacaville in 1955.
  • 1952: An earthquake forces California Institution for Women to relocate to new facility 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) opens at San Luis Obispo. The east facility opens in 1961.
  • 1955: California Correctional Institution opens, replacing earthquake damaged women’s prison at Tehachapi. The original prison is repurposed to house men.
  • 1957: Paroles moves to Department of Corrections. Responsibility to oversee female parolees wasn’t transferred to the Department until 1963. Also, the Department’s Research Unit is 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 initiated in prisons.
  • 1967: First family visiting program initiated at CCI at Tehachapi, extending to all prisons by 1976. Also, first male officer is 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 first female assigned to a male prison at CTF.
  • 1972: First training center established to train new Correctional Officers at Modesto Junior College. The program expands to a six-week academy, moving to Galt in 1983.
  • 1973: First CDC attorneys hired to handle increasing court actions.
  • 1975: Inmate Bill of Rights enacted by State Legislature, granting inmates absolute rights to visits, owning property, marriage while incarcerated and receiving published materials. Later court rulings said restrictions on these rights must directly relate to institution safety and security.
  • 1982: Midge Carroll appointed first female warden of a men’s prison at California Institution for Men. 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.
  • 1984: CSP-Solano opens at Vacaville. Originally part of CMF, the two prisons split in 1992.
  • 1986: CSP-Sacramento opened in Folsom as an adjunct to Folsom Prison. Became a fully separate prison in 1992.
  • 1987: Avenal SP and Northern California Women’s Facility open.
  • 1988: Corcoran and Chuckawalla Valley prisons open. Also, $817 million prison bond issue passed by California voters.
  • 1989: Pelican Bay prison opens near Crescent City.
  • 1990: Central California Women’s Facility opens near Chowchilla. The Joint Venture initiative passed by voters, allowing private employers to contract with the Department to hire inmates as employees.
  • 1991: Wasco State Prison opens, serving primarily as a reception center.
  • 1992: CSP-Calipatria opens.
  • 1993: CSP-Los Angeles County, CSP-Centinela and North Kern SP open.
  • 1994: Ironwood and Pleasant Valley prisons open.

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