CDCR Time Capsule

1855: San Quentin probe recommends hiring warden, dressing inmates alike

Yellowed paper reads "Report of the Special Committee on the State Prison."
The 1855 report on the conditions at San Quentin.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

In 1855, rumors regarding mismanagement of the state prison at Point San Quentin caused alarm with state lawmakers. California was relatively new as a state and the prison, leased by Gen. Estell, was rife with problems. Escapes were frequent as inmates worked in the quarry, built the first cells and slept aboard ships. To help separate rumor from fact, an investigative committee visited the prison to see first-hand what problems needed to be addressed. Their recommendations contain seeds of what would become today’s CDCR.

The committee found Gen. Estell’s methods lacking and the prison unable to achieve “the certainty of punishment, according to our criminal code, and the moral reformation of the convict.”

The investigators not only visited the prison, but also interviewed numerous staff and witnesses.

The report opens with, “The special Committee on State Prison, in obedience to the instructions of the Assembly requiring them, in conjunction with a special Committee appointed by the Senate, to visit the State Prison and examine into the condition and management of that institution, have performed that duty.”

Rumors of misconduct by prison staff had reached newspapers and some action needed to be taken. Gen. Estell’s attempts to hire professionals such as Capt. Bill Byrnes and Asa Estes, hadn’t gone as planned.

The official report, submitted March 29, 1855, is relatively short, coming in at a few pages. Some details in the report describe a typical day for the inmate, how they were kept and what they were fed.

“We are informed that about fifty new convicts have been received, making the number, at this time, three hundred and sixty-three. Near one half of these prisoners are worked at Marin Island, in the Bay of San Pablo, about two and a half miles from the Prison. The others are engaged at the Prison, and in running vessels to San Francisco, transporting stone and brick, and in getting wood from the hills with which to burn brick kilns. The convicts are required to labor from sunrise until sunset, except the time necessarily engaged in eating their meals,” the report states.

Prison layout in 1855

“Although there was some complaint among the convicts as to the kind and quantity of food and clothing, yet your Committee believe that they have no just ground for complaint in this particular. The health of the convicts seemed to be remarkably good,” the report states. “In accordance with the provisions of an Act passed May 11th, 1853, a Prison has been erected, with forty-eight cells on the second story, which, by the present arrangement of the lessee, of confining four prisoners in a cell, will safely confine one hundred and ninety-two. The lower story is divided into an office, guard room, and a long room in which prisoners are confined. The Prison is a very substantial building, and altogether safe for the confinement of prisoners at night.”

In 1855, a prison ship was still in use to secure inmates at night. The report mentions an escape from Marin Island in December 1854, resulting in 22 inmates giving guards the slip.

“Those engaged at work on Marin Island are confined at night on board of an old brig, which is firmly secured to the shore. Although not as securely confined at night as those at the Prison, yet their insular position banishes the idea of escape from their minds, unless they can get outside aid to procure boats with which to leave the island. Although a partially successful revolt occurred in December last, by which twenty-two prisoners secured a boat and escaped, yet we believe that with ordinary care the convicts can be more safely confined on this island than at the State Prison.”

The investigators warned of congregating too many inmates in one place due to crowding. They also believed the guard force wasn’t strong enough for the number of inmates at the prison.

“It would be exceedingly dangerous to keep all the convicts at the State Prison at the present time. There is prison room for but little more than half of them, and it is feared that so large a body of convicts thrown together, without sufficient means of confinement, would be the signal for a revolt, which, unless the guards be greatly increased, would, in all probability, be successful,” they found. “The lessee has under his employ about thirty men, who act as officers and guard. This number is not, in the estimation of your Committee, sufficient to suppress a revolt with certainty, and this number, when divided between the Prison and the island, does not present that formidable appearance to the convict which would discourage them from any attempt at an outbreak.”

Probe critical of trustee system

“It is the custom of the lessee to send six, eight or ten prisoners to the woods, to procure wood, with but a single guard. Escapes frequently occur while out in these parties. Prisoners have been sent out from the Prison to work on a ranch with and without guard,” investigators wrote.

They also took issue with the trustee system used by Estell in which inmates showing good behavior, or who have limited time remaining on their sentence, were given special jobs and allowed to go in and out of the prison without direct supervision. Critical of the system in its 1855 incarnation, the investigators saw some potential so were hesitant to completely do away with the practice.

“But the most of the escapes are occasioned by the adoption of a system denominated the ‘trustie system.’ By this system, a prisoner, whose term of service is about expiring, or who has behaved well, or has been recommended to the lessee as a gentleman and a man of good standing and family, is permitted to do light work, to be kept separate from the mass of prisoners, to go on errands for miles in the country, on foot or on horseback, alone; to go to San Francisco; to sleep without the guard at the cook house, off the Prison grounds, and other liberties, which are frequently taken advantage of to escape. It is believed that most who are now at large have escaped by this ‘trustie system.’ Although we are not prepared to entirely condemn the ‘trustie system,’ as such, yet it requires the exercise of the best judgment to know who to trust. It is sometimes advantageous to have some among the prisoners who will aid in giving information concerning rebellions and efforts at escapes, and to assist in suppressing revolts. The use of this system has been and may be serviceable, but it should be exercised with caution, and not to that extent that has been practiced in our State Prison.”

Lessee ran prison as business

Unlike today, inmates were not compensated for their labor in the 1850s.

“The convicts at the Prison are engaged in making brick, on grounds adjoining the Prison grounds, which are well adapted for the purpose, and under the control of General Estell. Those at Marin Island are engaged at quarrying stone from an excellent quarry, which we understand is owned by General Estell. The Committee having ascertained the present market value of brick and stone in the city of San Francisco, and the quantity that can be furnished by convict labor, are well satisfied that, with ordinary energy and judgment, the institution can be made not only a self-supporting institution, but even profitable. Yet the committee are assured by the lessee that he has lost, by keeping the State prisoners, under his present contract, $127,000. These losses, he informs us, occurred in consequence of bad management in the Prison matters, and that only in the last six months has he been able to make any profit on the Prison labor. He has now favorable contracts for furnishing bricks and stone, in the city of San Francisco, and that he has realized $45,000 profit in the last six months,” investigators wrote.

“From evidence, your Committee believe that, with ordinary care, a profit of one dollar per day to the convict may be realized, over and above all necessary expenses, such as food, clothing, guards, and working tools. Estimating the number of working convicts at three hundred, we have, by this calculation, $1,800 per week, or $97,200 clear profit per year. This calculation is made upon the supposition that favorable contracts can be made for the delivery of bricks and stone in the city of San Francisco, or at a place no further from the Prison.”

The origin of prison garb

The ability to tell the difference between staff, inmates and the general public was hampered by the lack of a prison uniform for the inmates. Before the days of wearing stripes, inmates wore the same clothes they had on when they were received by the various counties. The investigators recommended changes.

“The convicts are not required to dress in uniform, but to retain the clothes worn by them when brought to the Prison; so it is difficult to distinguish a convict from one of the guard. Their heads are not required to be shaved regularly, nor are they required to change their clothes as often as cleanliness would require. We believe that if a system of uniformity of dress (which, by its peculiarity, would attract attention,) would, if adopted, tend to prevent escapes; and if the heads were required to be shaved once a week, the escaped convicts would be recognized and their arrest would be facilitated,” they wrote.

“It is proper to remark, however, that, so far as these rules affect the police regulations of the Prison, their establishment was the duty of the Inspectors of the State Prison, and the lessee would have been compelled to comply with them. In consideration of these numerous defects in the government and discipline of the Prison, by which so many escapes were effected, and also in consequence of want of sufficient room at the Prison and Prison grounds, by which the convicts could be made secure, we made it a part of our duty to investigate the remedy the State might have to correct these evils, by retaining the contract with General Estell, the present lessee, or by dissolving the present connection between the lessee and the State and making such radical improvements, both in discipline and buildings, as will protect our citizens and insure the security of the convict.”

Recommends ending contract, hiring warden

“Should the plan here suggested by the committee be adopted (to purchase Estell’s contract), and the convicts of the State Prison be placed under the supervision of a warden or superintendent, we would not recommend that all the prisoners be removed forthwith to the prison ground for fear of an outbreak, but that one-half be engaged elsewhere in making bricks and quarrying stone,” investigators wrote.