Early in California prison history, ships played a vital role in rehabilitation and transportation.
Before automobiles or railroad expansion, let alone the construction of a network of reliable roads, the easiest means to transport goods and passengers in California was by ship. The docks in San Francisco and neighboring towns bustled with activity, jobs at the ready for those willing to put in a hard day’s work.
For those convicted of non-violent crimes, they could learn job skills as clerks and ranch hands at San Quentin. Another little known fact is they also worked the docks or aboard ships.
According to newspaper accounts and state reports, San Quentin maintained a small fleet of ships but also contracted with other vessels for goods and services.
California prison served by ships
Much like today’s CDCR transportation units, in the early days of the prison system, there was a Department of Vessels. In the 1855 Report of the Prison Directors, they looked closer at the state of the California prison ships.
Ships listed on the “statement of property in and around the state prison … on the first day of January 1856” include the schooner Mariposa, the sloop Pike County and the sloop Marin. The prison also employed two “captains of vessels (paid) $1,800 each” per year as well as a “crew to man two vessels (for) $2,400.” The 1855 prison directors’ report states, “Vessel account, for one boat for Island, cordage, ratlin, tar, paints, oars, etc., $566.66.”
According to prison contractor James Estell, “There being no stone to build the wall with, I refused to let (the state prison directors) have stone unless they bought the prison brig and materials, which agreement was made, for which I was to receive $7,000.”
Estell held the state contract to manage the prison.
The Mariposa was captained by George Lee, the Marin’s captain was George Johnson and the Pike County’s captain was Thomas Riley. The prison also employed an Overseer of Vessels, paying J.M. Gray $100 per month.
“The lease between James M. Estell and the State, for Marin Island, expires on the 1st day of June, 1856; and unless there be some provision made by the State, there will be no place to confine the prisoners at present employed therein, amounting to about 100.”
According to the 1858 Report Concerning Property at State Prison, by Joint Committee of the Legislature, there was a “yawl boat (in) bad order (valued at) $1, the sloop Black Cloud, old, (valued at) $100 (and the) sloop Pike County, good order, (valued at) $2,000.”
California prison ships scrutinized by committee
The Marin and Mariposa were missing when the committee investigated the prison but they soon discovered what became of the ships.
“The Marin is under charter … and is now on this coast in the vicinity of Cape St. Lucas; that she is now schooner rigged, having been changed by Estell at a cost of some $500, that her bottom is wormed and in bad condition, and her value now about $700 or $800. The Mariposa has been hauled up on the beach, and passed upon as worthless, by a regular survey,” the report states.
P.R. Hanna, a San Francisco shipwright, wrote, “The schooner Mariposa was hauled up on the beach, and condemned by a regular survey. She was perfectly useless, unless for firewood.”
The Mariposa appears in later records, apparently repaired and put back into service
The Marin was leased out to a man named James T. Stelle, according to his sworn deposition.
“Estell chartered her to me as state property; the charter papers were signed by him, as lessee of the state prison. I do not know the amount I have paid to Gen. Estell for her use, to the present time. I re-chartered the sloop to Tubbs & Co. for four months, with the privilege of 12 months,” he wrote in a letter dated March 6, 1858. “I had her for carrying lime from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. I was to pay, for her use, $125 per month, payable in lime.”
There was a contentious relationship between the prison lessee and the state. After the state retook control of the prison, property disputes arose. Some was claimed by Estell, some by prison sublessee J.F. McCauley, and the rest by the state. During the inventories taken at the time, there were more ships listed.
“Property claimed by J.F. McCauley (included) schooner William Hicks, of San Francisco, (valued at) $10,000; new whale-boat (valued at) $200; (three) scow-boats, large, (valued at) $100; three-masted schooner H.T. Clay (valued at) $12,000,” according to the Appendix of the Senate Journals dated 1858.
References to the sloop Ida are also made in other reports from the mid-1850s.
In a Report of the Committee on Property Outside of the Wall, dated 1860, the committee listed “two captains of boats – transports – and three guards detailed for boat service.”
Life aboard ship wasn’t pleasant
There isn’t much to be found regarding life on board one of the prison ships, but there are some references.
A special committee to investigate the prison site and the condition of inmates reported to the 1853 session of the State Senate. The investigation was made prior to the prison’s construction.
“At present (inmates) are lodged in a prison ship, from four to five in a room, not withstanding the cleanliness, care and attention bestowed to make these unfortunate people comfortable, they present a pale, care-worn appearance, which must be imputed to the effects produced from so many persons being confined during the night in a ship, although it is well ventilated,” the report states. “As regards food, it is plain and substantial; the bread is of a superior quality, and as good as nay to be found on any table in this country. The quantity appeared amply sufficient, if one might judge from what was left on the table, after the prisoners had finished their dinner, of bread, soup and meats.”
The report states inmates were served “warm meats, coffee, potatoes and bread” for breakfast, “soups of beef or beans (or) pork and beans, potatoes, bread and rice” for lunch and “cold meat, tea and bread” for supper. If weather meant the men were forced to stay inside, then they were not served meat at dinner.
According to the investigators, “when we come to reflect that 157 persons are every night confined in a close ship, five in a small room but little over eight feet square, humanity alone should cause the state to push forward the work (on the prison) during the dry season, that these men, although criminals, should have their condition somewhat ameliorated, at least.”
After being aboard ship all night, without plumbing and only a bed pan to relieve themselves, the stench in the morning was too much for the guards.
“It is impossible for the guard to go down into the ship in the morning early, as is the impurity of the atmosphere,” they wrote.
With plans for prison construction under way, the committee had an eye toward rehabilitation, asking the Senate to ensure inmates had opportunities to earn a living after their release.
“Discharged convicts (should learn) ordinary and useful occupations which men pursue in the world at large (and be) introduced (to the skills) in prison,” they wrote. “Hence the benefit of employment in prison (is also) reformatory. To secure these important ends, employment must be considered fundamentally important in prison.”
Rehabilitation through job skills
Another part of the report also lists the Estella as housing two trustees.
J.C. Gordon served as superintendent of San Quentin beginning Dec. 21, 1856, under contract with Estell. In 1857, he remained in his post under McCauley.
“(The incarcerated) are sent on boats to San Francisco, at times from 18 to 23 prisoners, with only two free men to act as guard,” he told the state Legislature on Jan. 20, 1858, a few months after he resigned. “There are two boats here, worked or run by prisoners, between this place, San Francisco, and Mare Island, in the transportation of bricks, goods, etc.”
Those who showed promise were often given jobs as incarcerated trustees, taking on more responsibility. Gordon provided an accounting of those inmates to the Legislature on Jan. 20, 1858.
“Jackson (serves as) mate on vessel Estella,” he wrote. “Antonio (serves as) sailor on vessel Estella.”
Meanwhile, M. Valentine was a cook on the vessel H.T. Clay.
It was during this time that the prison committee recommended many actions which are common today such as clothing inmates in similar attire, giving inmates a small sum of money upon their release to help ease their transition back into society and to put inmates to work on public projects. They also recommended the state build an inmate library. Many of these concepts were started under Walter Colton.
The committee emphasized the need for fair treatment during incarceration.
“Care should be taken that the design of such punishment be not forgotten; that the proper relation of the state to the convict be maintained; that, though, by her laws he is deemed a felon, yet, considered as a human being, with hopes and fears, heart and mind, love and affection, which ought to be impressed for good by his discipline, servitude and confinement.”
An 1857 report, featuring sworn deposition of Captain of the Guard George Wells, gave an accounting of the California prison ships and crews. Wells had worked at the prison for three years.
“Sloop Marin, 70 tons freight. Captain and mate, and three or four convict sailors – more employed baling, under a guard,” he said. “Sloop Pike County, about 70 tons, same number. Schooner Mariposa, condemned. Three-masted schooner (Estella), about 150 tons; crew free, captain and mate, and six convicts. … Convicts employed on vessels are short-timed men (with) two, three and four months to serve, and are locked under hatches.”.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Learn more about California prison ships:
- Meet Captain Leale, who helped bridge prison and re-entry.
- Learn about the first person incarcerated on the La Grange and Waban.
- 1857 report sheds light on the early years of San Quentin.