(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, wrote this piece regarding the employment of inmates. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Dec. 19, 1911, and gives a glimpse into life at the prison in the early 1900s. This was the second story of a short series Conroy wrote for the newspaper. At the time it was published, Conroy worked for the Santa Cruz Fire Department. He was also a deputy sheriff. Inside CDCR will publish his series, as originally written.)
By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison
It may be of interest to you as a taxpayer to this state to know something of the employment of the prisoners at the present time. We will start in the jute mill where there are employed between 800 and 900 prisoners under the supervision of 21 guards at the time I was employed there. The jute from which the sacks are manufactured comes from Calcutta in a raw state in bales of 500 pounds each, and is manufactured into sacks from start to finish exclusively by convict labor. An average day’s output of sacks is in the neighborhood of 16,000. This work is accomplished by the task system.
His day’s work
A prisoner has a certain amount of work to accomplish to complete his “task” and then his day’s work is done. For instance, a spinner has to take off 17 sets of 62 spools to complete his task and it takes about 20 minutes to run one set, providing the jute is good and gives the spinner no trouble; otherwise it takes him longer.
I have known cases where the spinner would work hard all day and then not get his task out, if the jute happened to run bad. A loom tender is supposed to weave 100 yards of cloth per day. This is not a hard task to do. I have known many loom tenders to weave out their task and a portion of the next day’s task and so on until they had done their weekly task in four days. In such cases, the prisoner has the balance of the week at his own discretion.
If I am not mistaken, the state aims to make one cent apiece on the jute bags to partly defray the expense of the manufacture. The general market prices of grain bags fluctuate according to the prices the state has to pay for the jute.
If a prisoner fails to do his task intentionally, he is punished for it. It is the guard’s duty to bring his before the captain of the yard, who sentences him at his pleasure, to either the dungeon or the straight jacket of a number of days on a diet of bread and water; or he may give him a lecture for his first offense and send him back to try it over.
All the prisoners are allowed the privilege of talking to one another while at work. Lots of people are under the impression that convicts are not allowed to speak to one another at all. There is only one class of prisoners who are not allowed to converse and they are the incorrigibles, who are denied all the privileges of the prison.
What they do
Now getting back to employment, there are a large number of the prisoners working outside the walls of the prison. For instance there are about 25 gardeners who raise some of the vegetables that are used at the prison and take care of the prison flower garden which surrounds the warden’s house.
Then there is the road gang who make and repair the roads inside the prison grounds and also on the county roads outside the prison grounds. There are about 30 to 40 cooks for the guards’ and officers’ mess, and waiters, and cooks to the number of 30 to 35 for the families of the guards and officials inside the prison grounds.
There is also a large gang working on the construction of the new cell buildings now nearing completion.
Then there are the tailors who make all the clothing for the prisoners from the raw goods as it arrives from the Oregon Woolen mills in the bale.
In the prison shoe factory, the shoes for the prisoners are also built from the heels up by prison labor. At the time I was employed at the prison, the average consumption of shoes was eight pair per day.
At the prison laundry that is practically up to date where all the laundry of the prisoners and free men is done as well as the laundry of the families of the guards and officers, many men are employed.
At the bakery where all the bread is baked that is consumed on the prison ground, both by convict and free men, more prisoners’ work, they both eat the same bread, baked in the same oven and made from the same flour.
Then there is the prison kitchen which I was say is very neat and clean. Most of the food in the prison is cooked by steam instead of fire.
Work for boys
By the time all of the places have been filled by labor, there are not many prisoners left who are not occupied.
(Younger inmates) are in charge of the garden inside the walls when they are not in school, to which they are compelled to go. When I was at the prison, the teacher of the school was a convict.
The aged prisoners who are not able to do anything all cell together in one big room known as “B room.” They have nothing to do whatever but stroll about the yard, read, play checkers and amuse themselves to the best of their ability.
All the carpenter work, plumbing, brick work, machine work and blacksmith work, in fact every conceivable variety of work done at San Quentin, is done by prisoners, as they are mostly masters of every imaginable trade.