CDCR Time Capsule

Dec. 18, 1911: Officer describes prison life for new arrival

Photo of prison across water with words "San Quentin" at the bottom.
San Quentin, 1906, from "In Tamal Land."

(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, described life in prison for a new arrival. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Dec. 18, 1911. This was the first story of a short series Conroy wrote for the newspaper. At the time it was published, Conroy worked for the Santa Cruz Fire Department. Later, he was also a deputy sheriff for the county. Inside CDCR will publish his series, as originally written.)

Prison life can be culture shock for new arrival

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

As I have been requested to write a story on the state’s prison at San Quentin where I was a guard for some time, I will do my utmost to give the public an honest story of what I know of it.

The first thing that confronts (a new arrival) is the turnkey’s office, where he is searched (for) anything he may have in his possession. This work is done by a prisoner (just as) all the office work is done by prisoners. Then he is taken into the clothing room where he is measured for a suit of clothing. He then receives a pair of shoes, underwear and a suit of stripes and a cap. The new arrival is then taken to the bathroom where he can enjoy the luxury of a fine bath, possibly after a long and tiresome trip from some remote part of the state. This done, he next visits the barber shop, which I wish to add is a place of great activity at all times.

Barber shop trade

If any of our local barbers had the patronage of the San Quentin shops, they could soon afford the luxury of an automobile.

There our new prisoner acquires a smooth face and a closely clipped scalp, which, a few moments previous may have been covered with a much-cherished head of hair; and many a man has left his whiskers in this same shop. After he can accustom himself to the fact that it is really himself, he is taken back to the measuring room where the Bertillon system is used in taking his measurements. All marks, scars, color of eyes, hair and other data are taken with his weight and age and nativity. (Editor’s note: Since fingerprinting was in its infancy at this time, law enforcement used this system of measurements to identify criminals.) 

From the measuring room, he then pays a visit to the photographer, who is also a prisoner. The photographer always tries to make his subject look pleasant, but it is sometimes a hard task.

After he leaves an impression with the photographer, he is next assigned to the mattress factory. Here he can select for himself a mattress and blankets. Next he goes to the cell where he will take up his future abode.

Introduced to prison life

This introduction to prison life all occurs in one routine without any let up until it is finished. (The process) generally takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half on the arrival of the prisoner, providing it is not too late in the day. In that event, the prisoner is assigned to a cell to await the coming of the next day.

It would be hard for anyone (to imagine the) effects this ordeal has on different prisoners after it is over. After they got through, (I’ve seen men) stand in the middle of the prison yard (with) tears of remorse rolling down their cheeks. On the other hand, (some men) gloat and josh over their appearance with an air of indifference and contempt.

After he has finished the routine, the prisoner may have the rest of the day to stroll about the yard and familiarize himself with his new surroundings. (At) lock up, he goes to his new home to spend his first night.

The morning after

Next morning he arises at bell taps, makes up his bed, and is ready to fall in line when the signal is given to unlock. (Then) he steps out in line with his slop bucket in hand. He stays in line until his turn arrives to empty the bucket into the sewer receptacle. (Editor’s note: There was no indoor plumbing at this time in San Quentin. A slop bucket was essentially a large bedpan.)

Then he returns his bucket to his cell. He is free for a few minutes until the breakfast line is formed.

The prisoners form a double line for breakfast and march into the dining room with caps off and arms folded. The tables are arranged to seat 22 prisoners at each one (with) seating capacity of the room about 400.

There is another dining room where the Chinese and Japanese sit. The food served them is precisely the same.

After breakfast is over, our prisoner can wander about the yard until about 9:30. Then he is called to the office of the Captain of the Yard, where he receives (the) rules and regulations.

From there he is consigned to the jute mill and turned over to the superintendent. (Then he is sent to a) certain section of the mill to start his labors. His first work is generally on a draw frame, carder, or breaker, requiring no skill to operate.

(With) time, he becomes more accustomed to the work. He is changed from one place to another until finally located permanently on a (suitable) job.

This is practically a convict’s first lesson in San Quentin.

Learn more about California prison history.

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