CDCR Time Capsule, Chaplains

1921: A snapshot of life in Folsom Prison

Folsom prison buildings spread out near a river.
The photo caption reads, "General view of Folsom Prison and farm." Circa 1921.

A 1921 Folsom Prison inspection report, penned by Agent AC Jensen, landed on the Inside CDCR desk. Photographs and detailed information were included in the 32-page report.

The prison was inspected July 8-9, 1921, and contains references to “the war.”

At the time, the state operated two prisons – San Quentin and Folsom. The historic document was turned over to California State Archives, but not before CDCR scanned images and combined information for readers. The report gives a snapshot into life at Folsom State Prison in the early 1920s.

War service reduced incarcerated population

The population of Folsom was materially reduced by the war, but is again increasing, (up 62 from the previous year).

In addition to the 875 men in the prison, there were 175 at the highway construction camp near Downieville. These men are strictly on their honor, and the camp, which is maintained without armed guards, resembles any ordinary construction camp. The prisoners are here given extra “good time” to the extent of two days for each day they work. Reports show that only 6 percent have attempted escape and less than 1 percent succeeded.

Prisoners are transferred from one state prison to the other by order of the Board of Prison Directors. All recidivists are sent to Folsom, but when some special reason demands it, transfer can be made.


The prisoner is first taken to the Receiving Department in charge of Lt. George C. Jennings who inspects and files his commitment papers, sees that he is properly registered and instructed as to the rules of conduct, and receives his property. He is then photographed, given a bath, shave and haircut, and taken to the Bertillon Room, where measurements, finger prints, etc., are made by an inmate finger print expert, tabulated and filed.

All records in this department were found to be in excellent condition and all information readily available. The prisoner’s property is safely cared for in a vault and by means of a proper filing system.

Medical examination

Before he is permitted to mingle with other inmates, the prisoner is given a complete examination, and a medical history is taken which includes age, marital status, family history, previous medical history, any venereal disease, habits, and present illness if any.

In this examination, special note is made of any remedial defects.

Rules and regulations

Each prisoner is given a printed copy of the “Rules and Regulations,” which contains a brief message and suggestions from the warden, the rules of the prison, and a schedule of credits allowed for work and conduct. This booklet is printed in English and Spanish.

Buildings and equipment

Main Cell Building: The larger portion of men are housed in this older building, a large structure of granite blocks quarried at the prison. Four rows of cells, two tiers in height and also constructed of prison granite, run the full length of the building. These cells have solid steel doors, only sparsely perforated, so that practically no natural light or ventilation is afforded. In the effort to remedy this condition, forced ventilation and electric lights have been installed in each cell. Cells are kept clean by frequent whitewashing of the walls, regular cleansing and disinfecting. Individual cells have no toilet facilities or water. Covered buckets are provided.

New Cell Building

A smaller concrete building containing 450 modern steel cells, (with) open fronts and equipped with washbowls, running water, toilets and sanitary iron beds. This building is better lighted and ventilated than (new) San Quentin buildings.

Prison Mess: The prison mess is a part of the main cell building. The dining room has old wooden tables and benches, at which the prisoners are seated facing each other. This room has been recently painted and is clean. The kitchen has poor equipment, poorly located.

Bath House: The bath house, a good concrete building, is equipped with dressing rooms, showers, and a plunge about 15 by 25 feet in size. River water, chlorinated, is used and is frequently changed. Clean clothes are issued once a week. Baths are required to be taken weekly but may be had oftener if desired.

Laundry: This is a modern, well-equipped plant, well lighted and ventilated and sufficiently large to care for all the work of the institution.

Chapel: The building designated as a chapel is of granite blocks forming one large bare room, one corner of which serves as a library for the storage and issuing of books, while the balance is used as an office for the educational director, for school classes, and for religious services. There is practically no equipment except for some old chairs and tables. The place is bare and unattractive.

School Room and Assembly Hall

The new School Building is now in process of construction (with) completion expected within the next year. This building is connected with the main cell house, making it possible for prisoners to (move between buildings) without going outside. At present, all entertainment must be held in the dining room during daylight.

Administration and Hospital Building: The administrative offices occupy the front (while) the hospital (is located at) the rear of a building attached to the main cell house. This way, entrance can be made directly to the hospital from the cells. The shoe and tailor shops and the commissary department are located in the basement of this building.

Shop Building: A well-constructed concrete building houses the various shops other than the shoe and tailor establishment mentioned above. All these departments, carpentering, painting, tinning and plumbing shops are well equipped to do the work needed.

Power House: A large power house of stone is located on the canal adjoining the river. During years of normal rainfall, sufficient power is here generated to supply the needs of the institution.


All food is of good quality and properly prepared, but a limited variety, and the necessary cooking in large quantities, cause meals to become very monotonous. Some improvements have been made in this regard without materially increasing cost. For instance, sugar is now served in place of syrup for use in coffee and on cereal.

Sample menu

Breakfast: hamburger steak with brown gravy, boiled potatoes, pink beans, bread and coffee with milk and sugar.

Dinner, known today as lunch: roast beef with brown pan gravy, steamed potatoes, Spanish beans, bread, raisin spice cake and tea.

Weekday menu usually included three meals.

Breakfast: rolled-oat mush with sugar, pink beans and coffee for breakfast.

Dinner: hot frankfurters, creamed onions and corn bread with tea.

Supper: Spanish beans, sweet rolls, bread and tea.

Some other meal options served throughout the week included fried salt pork and baked macaroni with tomato sauce, corn meal mush with sugar, beef stew with vegetables, stewed ranch prunes and cinnamon snails.


The prisoner, upon entering, is given two new suits of underwear, two pairs of socks, two shirts, a grey woolen coat, trousers and a pair of shoes. The time which these should last him has been carefully worked out. If they do not last as scheduled, he is supplied with clean second-hand articles. A careful check is kept on all clothing issued.

Parole violators and returned escapes wear the grey and white striped woolen suits.


All cells are in good condition. Those in the old cell house are frequently whitewashed and kept clean. The new cells are of steel and painted. Prisoners are allowed considerable freedom in the matter of personal effects. The bedding is clean. Freshly cleaned blankets are provided every man upon entering. These are never exchanged among prisoners until washed.


The prisoner is assigned to work by the captain of the guard, Capt. Cochran, who takes into consideration the man’s physical condition as shown by the physician’s examination, his trade or his previous training, and the needs of various departments of the prison.

He is usually placed where he is most needed, and very little attention is paid to the idea of giving the prisoner training along any particular line.

The quarry is considered the least desirable of the prison industries, but , because of an arrangement whereby the men assigned to this department, though remaining at the quarry all day, work half a day only, they are not overworked, and, in some cases, prefer to be kept on here rather than transferred to other work. Wherever possible, the task system is used here as an incentive to application and greater production.

Warden Smith believes a (new prison) factory should be (created to generate) revenue. He has made recommendations to the Board of Prison Directors (for a) toy factory, (since it) would not interfere with any of the present industries of the state. He has in mind a plan whereby the prisoners might earn their own maintenance and something additional toward the support of (their families).

Work assignments

The 1921 Folsom Prison report included inmate employment assignments.

Of note were six bed makers as well as five officer and guard barbers assigned to the Captain’s Department. The Commissary had one assigned to the coal gang and another as a butcher.

Engineer’s Department:

  • 30 assigned to the blacksmith’s shop
  • 2 to the railroad
  • 4 to the tramway
  • 1 to the saw mill
  • 2 to the ice plant
  • 2 to the telephone

Farm and Dairy: four teamsters and eight scavengers. In the Turn-Keys Department, there were six assigned as white washers. Under Prison Improvements, there were 31 inmates assigned to the Wall Gang. The Folsom Prison wall wasn’t completed until two years after the 1921 inspection report.


The hospital staff now consists of Dr. H.A. Clattenburg, resident physician, and Dr. M.L. Azevedo, who has recently arrived to assist him. This will make it possible to have a physician always on duty at the prison. Nurses, laboratory and clerical assistants are selected for their previous training in professional and business lines.

The department is well organized and is doing good work. A very keen interest in its development is evinced on the part of both Dr. Clattenburg and Warden Smith.

All new prisoners are promptly examined, and this work is complete to date. Clinics are held twice a day, which the men are allowed to attend before going to work in the morning and again in the afternoon, when routine treatment is given and simple medicines dispensed. The men are not required to have a permit for this.


As stated above, the hospital forms an extension of the main cell building and is reached directly from these cells. It is sufficiently large for office, clinical, and X-ray rooms, a medical and surgical wards. The surgery is provided with all necessary equipment and instruments. A fine system of sterilizers consisting of an autoclave, instrument sterilizer and hot and cold water sterilizers were secured several years ago but never installed because of the lack of live steam connection with the main cell building. Warden Smith realizes the need for this equipment and stated that plans were being made for its installation.

Dental Department

A resident dentist is assisted by several inmate assistants. The mouths of all prisoners are examined at the time of their admission and a chart prepared showing the condition of each tooth. Any acute condition is given immediate attention and other defects cared for in order of their urgency.


Dr. M. W. Haworth, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist of Sacramento, visits the prison monthly for the examination of those patients referred to him by the resident physician. Operations are performed and eye glasses provided when necessary. During the last month, 12 examinations were made and glasses prescribed for 10 cases.


School is conducted daily in the chapel. John F. Arnerich, acting as educational director, has the salary and rating of a guard. He is assisted by inmate teachers.

All prisoners requesting the privilege may spend two or three hours daily at these classes, which are held at varying times throughout the day. The greater part of the work is in the elementary grades, but university extension courses are also available. No night classes are conducted.

(Average daily attendance for some of the classes were four for penmanship, three for typewriting, two for advanced grammar, 11 for first grade English, seven for advanced arithmetic, nine for drawing, nine for gas engines and three for algebra. University extension correspondence courses at the time included 28 inmates taking agriculture-related courses.)


There is a good library also under the supervision of the educational director. Books are exchanged every two weeks. A number of periodicals are subscribed for and circulated among the men.


In view of the fact that the men of Folsom are recidivists, who have not availed themselves of previously offered opportunities, it would seem advisable that they be kept busy at useful employment during a full working day, receiving all educational opportunities after working hours. As already noted, men in the quarry work only half a day at comparatively easy labor.


The need of a reasonable amount of recreation is recognized in the prison policy. Baseball games are played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The prisoners have their own teams, organized into leagues and managed by inmate captains and committees. This organization is found helpful in the maintaining of discipline.

Every available spot of ground has been developed by the prisoners into small intensively cultivated individual gardens. Many of these are only a few feet in size but are objects of very keen interest.

Moving pictures are shown twice a month, the dining room being used for this purpose.

Purchases by Prisoners

Prisoners having the necessary funds are permitted to requisitions for tobaccos, toilet preparations, and other articles for their personal comfort. These are purchased for them and paid for with checks signed by the prisoners.

Religious Services

There is no resident chaplain, but Catholic and protestant chaplains, regularly appointed by the Board of Prison Directors, conduct services in the chapel every Sunday. Services for other beliefs are also held and occasional services for Jewish inmates on Saturday.

Parole and Discharge

Before parole is granted, a careful study is made of the reports by the Captain of the Guard regarding the prisoner’s record of conduct, and by the medical director as to his physical condition. All facts pertinent to the case are considered at length. The committing judge, the local district attorney, and the man’s former employer are consulted. Parole prisoners must have definite employment to which to go, and a reputable person to act as sponsor, agreeing to report regularly as to his conduct and work.

Almost all anticipate parole after a certain portion of the term has been served. This of course assists materially in keeping up the morale and discipline of the prison.

Parole is not intended to shorten the prisoner’s sentence, but to substitute for a portion of it an opportunity to leave the prison and adjust himself to normal conditions and responsibilities under guidance and the restraint of his unexpired sentence.


Your agent recommends:

First: That the warden be given assistance in his plan to establish some revenue producing industry at the prison to the end that a plan might be evolved whereby the prisoner could earn his maintenance and perhaps contribute to the support of dependents.

Second: That the men be employed during regular working hours, and that those desiring educational opportunities be given them after working hours in classes to be conducted in the evening as soon as equipment permits.

Third: That some means be established for the proper care of the criminally insane of California, either by transfer to state hospitals or in a properly equipped hospital at one of the state prisons.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor, OPEC
Historic photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

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