Unlocking History

State opens first reform school, acquires ship

Drawing of San Francisco Industrial School.
San Francisco Industrial School, circa 1871.

Establishing the first reform school in California

To deal with youth crime, San Francisco set aside land to build a reform school, but when plans stalled, the state stepped in.

On April 15, 1858, the California Legislature passed the Industrial School Act. The San Francisco Industrial School opened a year later. This new private-public hybrid institution set the stage for what would eventually become the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on the history of DJJ. (Read part 3)

San Francisco Industrial School

“Under the act, San Francisco was to support the privately chartered institution with an initial construction allocation of $20,000 and a subsequent monthly allocation of $1,000 contingent on $10,000 in matching private donations. … To ensure the participation of local officials, the act mandated that three members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors serve as ex officio Industrial School Board members,” wrote Daniel Macallair in the UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy, Vol. 7: 1, 2003. “The San Francisco Industrial School was the inaugural and most significant nineteenth century event in the establishment of California’s juvenile justice system.”

The first year saw 60 boys and five girls admitted to the school. Only 12 committed crimes. The others were committed for “leading an idle and dissolute life.” According to Macallair, this meant the children were considered to have little guidance at home. Of those admitted, the average age was 12 and two of the children were under 5.

According to reports, the children’s day began at 5:30 a.m. They were given breakfast and taken to work with a “pick and shovel in grading the hill in the back of the building,” according Macallair.

They had a meal at noon. From 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., they returned to work. School, from 3 to 5:30 p.m., required the youths to carry their tables and benches from the cafeteria to the school’s one classroom.

The lone teacher’s desk was a barrel and board. Supper was served at 6 p.m. From 7 to 8:30 p.m., they returned to the classroom. Finally, they crawled into bed at 9 p.m.

State opens its own reform school

The early 1860s was a time of upheaval. California been a state for a little more than a decade with no official state capital city selected. Sacramento didn’t become the capital until 1879.

During the interim, multiple cities vied for the designation, hoping to land state facilities to better their chances. It was in this setting that California established the State Reform School in Marysville in 1860.

“The city of Marysville is to be the location of the reformatory institution for misguided youths,” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, April 11, 1860. The bill stated, “There shall be erected upon the land conveyed to the city of Marysville, a State Reform School, for the instruction, employment and reform of juvenile offenders.”

The school was constructed and opened its doors in 1861, the same year the country plunged into Civil War.

“The object of the institution is to reform, if possible, youths between the ages of 8 and 16, who (are) convicted of offences against the laws, and thus amenable to be sentenced to be imprisoned for a stated time,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, Nov. 21, 1861.

“Judges and Justices may, at their option, sentence all such offenders to the Reform School or to the usual punishment provided by law. Should any youth sentenced to a term in the School prove to be incorrigible, after a fair probation, he will be remanded to the State Prison or jail. In the Reform School, they will be furnished with enough work to keep them from being idle, and instructed in the duties they owe to themselves and to others.”

Marysville, San Francisco schools at odds

The new school housed eight boys in April 1862 growing to 13 later in the year. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s reform school housed many more children at a significantly reduced per-student cost.

“The San Francisco people regret to see so pretty a plum as the State Reform School slipping from their grasp. (So, they) have made another effort (to acquire the school),” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, April 3, 1862.

San Francisco saw merging the two schools as a way to save money while attracting additional state funds.

“The Assembly passed the General Appropriation bill, (allocating) $10,000 to the State Reform School. If the school is transferred to San Francisco, this money will transfer with it,” the paper reported.

The newspaper criticized the state’s support of charitable organizations using taxpayer funds.

“These special appropriations (for charity-run orphanages) amount to $33,000,” the paper reported. “(While) noble, the State cannot this year afford (the expense due to) the calamities of civil war and the floods. The State has her own benevolent institutions to support, which this year demand unusual expenditures. The state reform school must be cared for.”

Merging the two schools

San Francisco lobbied for the school to be relocated.

“The Assembly Bill 505 passed, providing for the removal of the inmates of the State Reform School (in Marysville) to the San Francisco Industrial School,” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, March 22, 1866.

An 1867 report to Gov. Frederick Low showed the school was still running in Marysville.

Some of the school’s expenses included:

  • kerosene and wick, $74.62
  • blacksmith and wagon-work, $237.75
  • harness and repairing, $115.25
  • heading and threshing, $74
  • with annual expenditures at roughly $10,500.

By 1868, the Marysville reform school was a “deserted village,” according to newspapers.

“At the rates paid the Industrial School for ‘boarding’ the Reform School boys, placing the number at 50, the total amounts in two years to $18,000. The State might as well keep (it),” wrote the Marysville paper, April 22, 1868.

Placed in charge of the Reform School property, the Secretary of State closed the facility.

“Amid soaring costs and growing controversy, the Marysville Reform School was closed in 1868 by legislative decree,” wrote Macallair in the UC Davis publication. “Marysville’s remaining youths were transferred to the Industrial School.”

Former warship becomes floating school

The Jamestown floats in a bay circa 1880s.
The USS Jamestown, US Sloop of War, 1883. (Photo: U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command.)

The USS Jamestown, a decommissioned war vessel, was used by the state to help train wayward youth in maritime jobs. The 1876 acquisition marked the second time the state used a ship as a floating correctional facility. The first was the Waban in 1851, incarcerating lawbreakers at night while they went ashore during the day to construct cells at San Quentin. The state used other ships as well during those early years.

Eventually, the Jamestown would incarcerate 100 youth from San Francisco and 100 youth from other counties.

From Navy flagship to training vessel for youth

In 1844, the ship was commissioned and used as the flagship of Commodore Charles Skinner in command of U.S. naval vessels.

During the 1847 Ireland potato famine, the Jamestown was used to transport food to those in need.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union needed ships and turned to those sitting unused. The USS Jamestown, having been decommissioned, was once again brought in to serve its country. Only now, instead of delivering supplies, the Jamestown was blockading southern ports to cut off vital shipments meant for Confederate troops.

The Jamestown captured five ships during its 1861-62 service in the Atlantic. Fearing attacks by Confederate privateers, the vessel was then assigned to protect shipping lanes in Pacific. After guarding the West Coast for nine years, the Navy decommissioned the Jamestown.

For five years the ship was mothballed, until California came calling.

In 1876, the Jamestown was reactivated, this time as a state public maritime school. Operating out of San Francisco, the ship-based school would be reimbursed by the state.

Incarcerated on the ship, the youth learn nautical trades during a two-year training period. The rehabilitative experiment closed after three short years, when the Jamestown returned to US Navy service.

“The (ship) was, for all practical purposes, a floating reform school until it was returned to the federal government on Feb. 28, 1879,” according to Welfare Activities of Federal, State and Local Governments in California, 1850-1934.

The ship continued serving in various capacities until 1913, when it was destroyed by fire in the Norfolk Navy Yard.

State focuses on next steps for youth rehabilitation

In 1892, the San Francisco reform school closed its doors because the state had other ideas. Representing a shift in how to rehabilitate youthful offenders, California leaders planned to construct two modern reform schools. After implementing the plan, Whittier and Preston would operate for over a century.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

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