CDCR Time Capsule

Jan. 5, 1912: Former officer on prison reform

Three men stand behind a fire engine that appears to have been recently washed as a water bucket is nearby.
Santa Cruz firefighters wash the 1912 LaFrance fire engine, the first motorized piece of fire equipment for the Department. William Conroy was a Santa Cruz firefighter at this time. The men in the photo are not identified. Courtesy Santa Cruz Public Libraries.

(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, wrapped up his series on prison life by giving his opinions on where real prison reform should begin. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Jan. 5, 1912. This was the last of his series. Conroy met an untimely death in 1917 at the age of 45.)

To achieve prison reform, focus on parenting skills

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

My views on prison reform are vastly different from any I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I will venture to say right here that a very large percentage of the crime committed can justly be placed at the door of the criminal’s childhood; therefore I think the proper place to work on reform is at the doorstep of the child.

How many children are there that grow from the cradle to (adulthood) without any effort of the parents to keep them within the bounds of a guiding hand, which by the law of nature belongs to the child, and should be constantly with it until it reaches an age where it is beyond danger, and can judge for itself.

I candidly say if many of the parents would give one-half the time they spend on self-pleasures to the training of their children, we would not be compelled to build new additions to our prisons.

How many children in many of our towns and cities can we see on our streets nightly at unreasonable hours, or in other words, the danger hours to children of this tender age, without the care of a parent or guardian?

Can you blame a child who grows to (adulthood) and goes wrong under those conditions? I don’t think you can. I also think a parent who rears a child without making an effort to teach right from wrong, is the worst criminal of the two.

Wealth doesn’t equal good parenting

Many children of today never have that love of the parent, especially among that class that have hoarded a goodly supply of the world’s riches. It is placed in the hands of a (nanny) in infancy, and that loving mother’s time is so important in society, that father’s greed is so great for wealth, that the child is loved by no one but the (nanny).

On the other hand, we have the poor parents, many of whom rear large families; the father possibly supporting this large family on his daily wage, which is far too small to meet the actual necessities of maintenance. The result is, as soon as they are big and old enough – both boys and girls – they are forced to shift for themselves at the tender age when they should be in school. Consequently they get into the pathways of life’s pleasures and drift with its tide to whatever sphere of life it may lead them.

Reform the parents and their home before children end up in prison

I think that a great many parents of this present generation are too much taken with their selfish pleasures – societies, lodges, etc. – and do not give offspring love and care intended for them.

Consequently we have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars here in our state in the last few years to enlarge our prisons.

Now I do not say that crime can be abolished. But I do say crime could be reduced if many of the persons (in prison) were given proper training through childhood.

What happened to Conroy?

After his time at San Quentin was done, he worked for the Santa Cruz Fire Department and was also a Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff.

Newspaper headline reads: Death follows fast ride on unsafe road.
A 1917 newspaper headline announces Conroy’s death.

“Bill Conroy, former deputy sheriff of this county, crushed under car,” reads the Santa Cruz Evening News headline from April 19, 1917. “Conroy was killed while on his way from Salinas to his ranch near Jamesburg in Monterey County. The machine he was driving ran off the road into a five-foot ditch and Conroy was caught beneath it and crushed to death. His body was found by Ed Rossi in passing by.”

According to the newspaper account, he was well respected in the county.

“Conroy was well known and well liked in Santa Cruz where he had lived for many years, the family home being on Vine street. He leaves a mother and 11 brothers and sisters. Conroy served for some time as deputy sheriff of this county and was at one time a member of the fire department. He was once a guard at San Quentin prison.

“He wrote a series of articles on prison management that were widely copied. Last night’s fatal accident was due to fast driving by Conroy on a dangerous road, according to information received over the long distance wire this morning. The driver of the car was accompanied by Mrs. C.H. Sellman, Mrs. Anna Sage and John Watson, all of Oakland, but owners of property in the Jamesburg section. None of the party were hurt except minor bruises,” the newspaper reported. “The car was strange to Conroy and the women in the party warned him several times to cut down his speed. The accident occurred on a curve.”

He was 45 years old at the time of his death.

Learn more about California prison history.

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