CDCR Time Capsule, Rehabilitation

1911: Former officer describes life for females

Early female prison staff supervised women at San Quentin, like in this early courtyard image.
Women convicted of crimes were kept in San Quentin until the 1930s. (CDCR file photo circa 1910-1915.)

(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, described how incarcerated females were employed at the prison. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Dec. 30, 1911. This was the third 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, in the coming weeks.)

I cannot say very much about the women’s department at San Quentin, as we were never admitted to their quarters.

The women’s quarters are under the management of a matron and the guards have nothing to do with them whatever unless there is trouble in there; then some of the men authorities have to go in and settle things. There was only one woman prisoner there out of 28 that gave any trouble while I was there and her name was Belle.

Wound up in dungeon

A pretty name is it not, girls? But Belle was not in it whenever she (had a tantrum) and you would surely know it, and all the people (who) lived within a mile of the prison knew it. Also she could not hold in any longer than a couple of months at a time. She would then break loose for about two days, and during that time everyone that was connected with that prison “got his,” from the warden down. Then she would be sorry for what she had said – to the people half a mile down town – and try to fix it up with a prayer and song. It was astonishing how long she could pray, but before she got through she generally wound up in the dungeon.

What they do

The women’s employment consists of making the undergarments for the men prisoners.

The goods from which those garments are made come to the prison the same as the striped goods, which are used to make the suits, that is to say by the bale. I think their work is by the task system, the same as the men’s work is done, but I am not sure. As I said before I was never inside of their department and know nothing of the inside of their buildings.

I know their yard space is very small. They have not got over 50×75 feet of yard space, I think, and a wall about 20 feet high all around them; so you can see how much chance they have to look out.

It is all they can do to look straight up the same as though they were in a big well; and speaking a word of my views on the matter, let the women be ever so bad, I think they should have as good quarters as the male prisoners anyway, as they are not angels, either.

I think the women should have a larger yard where they could have more sunshine, and a flower garden to look upon, as it would be likely to make them feel more cheerful even though they are in prison.

There is a lovely garden in the upper yard which some of the male prisoners can stand in their cell and look at, but there is not as much as a week in the narrow space occupied by the women. The male prisoners have by far the best quarters to my way of thinking, especially since the new cell building has been added.

No longer domestics

Some years ago the women were employed at the different families of guards and officers, as cooks and servants, but for certain reasons that caused the pardon of one or two of them, this was dispensed with and their places filled by men.

I do not know who was warden at the time but since then the women have been confined in their quarters. It is natural for a woman to love flowers, even though she’s in prison.

You cannot help but notice that love which they have for them by the few impoverished geraniums and vines they are trying to keep thriving in their cell windows. I say give them a larger yard, with a garden, with more sunshine; which is bound to bring more cheer.

No matter what their crimes may be, they are women just as much as the male prisoners are men, and I think are entitled to just as good quarters.

Very few deaths

The death rate is comparatively small at the prison, considering the number of prisoners who are there. I don’t think there were over a dozen deaths there during my time of employment.

(The) women’s dresses are of two different kinds – one which they wear inside their quarters, which is made from a gingham cloth of a light grey color, with a narrow brownish stripe, about a quarter-of-an-inch wide. The other is a dark blue suit of serge texture, which they use on special occasions such as going to one of the prison shows; and when some relative or friend calls at the prison to see them.

They have shows

They had a show almost every July 4th while I was there. It would run all day. All the parts were taken by prisoners and the scenery was painted by them also. Every section of the prison had their time to go to the show during the day and in the evening the officers and guards with their families and friends would attend also. Many an old-timer in the prison looks forward to show day as a youngster looks forward to Christmas. You can hear it talked of among them long before and after.

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

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