CDCR Time Capsule

1912: Former officer describes SQ visitors tour

San Quentin warden's office and entrance in 1910.
Warden's Office and front of San Quentin, 1910. (Marin Public Library, Anne Kent California Room)

(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, described what visitors saw when they toured San Quentin prison. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Jan. 3, 1912. This was the fifth 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.)

Walking through San Quentin in early 1900s

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

People often ask me, “What do you see at San Quentin going through the prison?”

About the best way I can answer is to take you right through on paper, although I have taken hundreds in person.

You first leave all papers, guns, etc., at the outside gate of the prison in care of the gate tender, who has a place provided for them. The next step is to follow the guard in whose charge you have placed yourself.

You follow him through the inner gate to the clothing rooms and measure room. There, the Bertillon system is shown to you, stopping for a few minutes to explain whatever you may ask him.

From the clothing room, you are taken down to the dining room. Then, through the dining room into the jute mills.

Extinguish cigars when entering jute mill

When you are about to enter the gate to the jute mill you are requested to throw away a cigar if you should happen to be smoking and of all the scrambling a person ever saw you will see it among the prisoners to get in possession of the discarded cigar.

Then as the gate to the mill opens, you follow the guard into the yard of the jute mill. While there, another guard falls in behind you. He stays there until you go through the mill and out of the yard again.

Just inside the gate, there is stationed a prisoner with a whisk broom. He will brush you, cleaning off any jute particles that may have got on your clothes while (in) the mill. This prisoner is one of the only two inside the walls you are allowed to give any money to. You can hand him any amount you may see fit for brushing you up. He is right on the job all the while, and looking for the next.

Up to the gallows

After (this), you are taken up through the carpenter shop and machine shop, and then upstairs to the gallows.

At the gallows, you are turned over to the only prisoner you are allowed to speak to. He starts in with the 12 or 14 ropes, stretching from the ceiling with a 300-pound weight on the end of them, waiting (for use).

All the rope used for this purpose is hung up and stretched for six months to a year to get all the slack out of it. As soon as one is used for this purpose, another is hung up in its place to stretch.

From this, the guard takes you to the gallows and explains all its workings. Then, from the gallows, he leads you to the little deck, where he has a little booklet which he has the privilege to offer you for any sum you may wish to pay him in return.

The cell buildings

From the gallows, you are led back to the upper yard where you can look over to the cell buildings. But, you are not allowed to go near them.

When I was there, visitors were not allowed in the:

  • tailoring and shoe shops
  • hospital
  • dungeons
  • drug store
  • doctor’s office
  • library
  • or women’s ward.

No women visitors were allowed inside the prison. I don’t think there were ever any women visitors allowed (in) the women’s ward, (except for) some religious organizations.

A woman could go up in the balcony and overlook the upper yard if they took favorable with the captain of the guards. Otherwise she could content herself with sitting on the benches in front and staring at the big iron gate.

(People touring) the prison are not allowed to speak to any of the prisoners. If he sees a prisoner inside he wishes to talk to, he must go to the captain of the guards and ask (permission).

Then the captain will have him brought to his office, and you can (briefly) talk with him.

Necessary precautions

The only reason that I can give is they are afraid (the tour visitor) will smuggle narcotics into the prisoners. There are many people who visit San Quentin. When a guard is taking a bunch of them through, he does not know if (one is) an ex-convict from some other prison. (One of them could also) have a father or brother serving time right in San Quentin. Therefore, it is necessary that there must precaution used in escorting (people) through the prison.

No one who has served time in the prison is allowed on prison grounds after he serves his term.

Learn more about California prison history.

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