By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
A report by the state prison investigative committee published in the 1870s details efforts to rehabilitate inmates, lists a typical mess hall menu and describes the general layout of San Quentin. The committee also made their case to establish a branch prison at Folsom.
Dated Feb. 19, 1874, the committee chair wrote, “We inspected the various departments connected therewith, and the workshops and all other buildings pertaining thereto were visited by us; and also heard applicants for commutation of sentences, and such other business as we thought our duty called for.”
Inspectors urge separating new offenders
The committee found deteriorating walls, poorly ventilated cells and a need to separate first-time offenders from career criminals.
“We found the wall in which the prison buildings cells … are enclosed, in many places undergoing fast decay, the upper brick portion of which cannot last much longer without repair, it having been constructed of a very inferior quality of brick — said to have been made with salt water — which has failed to resist the severe rainstorms which have beat against it since the construction.
“We think that prompt measures should at once be taken to prevent the further demolition of these walls, and would suggest a good coat of asphaltum, or such other material as the Board of Directors may deem proper, be employed in this relation, thereby arresting further decay and securing a material which would stand the wear and tear of weather, as well as protect the remaining portions from further decay,” the report states.
As many before pointed out, a classification system was desperately needed as well as a better way to keep cells well ventilated.
“(The cells and dormitory sleeping areas are in) a most deplorable state of affairs, and in direct violation of all the established laws of physiology and hygiene, which require that a healthy man should have, at the very least, five hundred cubic feet of well ventilated space.
“Aside from the fact of the great lack of sleeping capacity in these buildings, is also to be deplored the unguarded practice of commingling all ages and classes indiscriminately together, resulting in the propagation of secret and degrading vices, thereby making the prison a hotbed of evil and deteriorating the ends for which prisons have been established. By such a pernicious state of affairs, the young and uninitiated convict is compelled to associate with the old and hardened ones, who, in a short companionship, shape out the otherwise susceptibility of moral improvement beyond redemption.
“This system of packing or crowding so many human beings in such small space should be stopped as soon as possible, and no cell should be occupied by more than two prisoners at most. We would recommend the building of additional cells to meet the actual wants of these extra prisoners, and the grading of the prisoners, with a view to moral influences on the subject,” according to the report.
Hospital and women’s ward
The hospital, created originally by the first prison physician, Dr. Alfred Taliaferro (link opens new tab), had outgrown its usefulness. The committee also called for hot water accessibility as well as a bathroom to be erected near the hospital.
“We next visited the hospital department, which stands in the right corner of the upper yard of the prison, a two-story brick building, the upper part of which is occupied as a hospital — wards and dispensary — and the lower part as a hospital kitchen and lockup for convalescent patients. The hospital has two very close and poorly located wards … and a pantry – called a dispensary and surgery,” the report states. “This building is entirely too small for the requirements of an institution verging on one thousand souls…. We also notice that the kitchen is not so located that access can be had at any time by the physician for warm water, which is, in a great measure, often (necessary) in the treatment of patients at all hours, and sometimes at night; warm water should be conveyed into the wards and kept on hand for use at any hour; also, a bathroom should be erected in connection with the hospital.”
The committee noted the Women’s Ward was “comfortable.”
“Returning to the front gate, and situated in the north corner of the upper yard of the prison, stands the two-story brick building now occupied by the Captain of the Yard and Turnkey, forty by twenty feet, in the lower story, and by the female prisoners in the upper story. The female department is conveniently partitioned off into wards or rooms, with two beds in each, and part of the same floor is occupied as a clothing store-room. In the rear, and fenced off from the other part of the yard, is a little flower garden, wherein alone the females promenade. The female department is well located, convenient, and very comfortable. In this building the brick looks a little decayed, also, and it would be advisable to use prompt measures to preserve from further incursions of time and rain,” the committee found.
Food, inmate jobs and education
The menu for inmates in a standard week included fish hash, white bread and potatoes.
SUNDAY—Breakfast.—Cracked wheat, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Roast beef, baked potatoes, bread, and coffee. Supper.—Graham bread and tea.
MONDAY—Breakfast.—Fish hash, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Corned beef, and vegetables, and white bread. Supper.—White bread and tea.
TUESDAY—Breakfast.—Meat hash, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Baked beans, brown bread, and bean soup. Supper.—White bread and tea.
WEDNESDAY—Breakfast.—Cracked wheat, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Beef soup and white bread. Supper.—White bread and tea.
THURSDAY—Breakfast.—Roast beef, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Pea soup and white bread. Supper.—White bread and tea.
FRIDAY—Breakfast.—Fish hash, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Baked beans, brown bread, and bean soup. Supper.—White bread and tea.
SATURDAY—Breakfast.—Meat hash, white bread, and coffee. Dinner.—Beef soup and white bread. Supper.—White bread and tea.
“In each and all of the departments visited by us, we were very agreeably surprised to find the men employed, in point of intelligence, to be above the average, and the manner of working to be as rapid and perfect as any free … labor elsewhere could be. Of the total number confined in the prison, which is nine hundred and forty-one, there are about five hundred and thirty employed, and, of these five hundred and thirty, nearly one-fourth are practical mechanics — having served during their life in some mechanical or artistic business,” the report states. “We next visited the chapel, school room, and library, which is in a room in the fourth story of the four and a half story brick, sixty by forty feet, and is well furnished with benches, a pulpit, tables, organ, and the effect enlivened by instructive and domestic charts and pictures, which are tastefully displayed from the walls. There is a library of over three thousand volumes, and great care and neatness is displayed by the prisoners in the treatment of books borrowed by them. About two thousand five hundred books are taken out monthly. There are accommodations capable of seating about five hundred persons.”
“After the close of the religious services the school was immediately convened (in the church), which is under the direct supervision of Miguel Smith, Moral Instructor, who, indeed, has a hard and onerous task to perform in the shaping out or mending up of shattered principles, minds, etc.; a work, which, in the interest of humanity and the reform of convicts, has been, to a great extent, heretofore and … overlooked.
“Professor Smith here, during his term, has made great advances in the way of educating and teaching good morals to the prisoners, which the manifold practical subjects can testify to. Here, in the school-room, can be seen old gray-headed and young men sitting side by side, learning and being willing to learn.
“While some are studying the classics, others are learning to read the alphabet and the primary grades of the beginner. In this school there is taught a good English education, embracing reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, bookkeeping, navigation, trigonometry, Spanish, German, Latin, French, etc.,” according to the report. “The attendance, at both church and school, is very large, averaging from three hundred to five hundred — the system being voluntary.
“In the moral department of a prison lays the future reform, if any, of the convict; and, in the furtherance of this, hope and encouragement are held out for all to cultivate feelings of manhood and self-respect, to seek improvement and reformation. It has heretofore too often been the custom to treat the convicts as a separate and distinct class from the rest of mankind, and that peculiar legislation was required, some power or process whereby criminals, as it were, could be put into a machine and turned out models.
“With some few exceptions, these convicts will be found men not essentially different from the rest of mankind, subject to the same influences, moved by the same passions, desires, affections, hopes, and fears, and that the responsibility of his repentance and a better life rests on himself.
“His reformation, as with every man, rests between him and his Creator. A man can repent of crimes and misdeeds in any place, and under any circumstances, and no other place is more eminently calculated to produce the proper state of mind that leads to repentance, remorse, and an earnest desire for a better life, than a well-disciplined moral department in the State Prison.
“Also, the auxiliary of labor, and not idleness, the healthy occupation of mind and body, is powerful in the good work of criminal reformation. By labor and education the convict is reminded, by his surroundings and want of liberty, that the way of the transgressor is hard; that a dishonest life is a failure; that to be happy and respected one must be honest and upright.
“Kind, but decided and firm treatment has been employed as the principal means of control; and we think with practical results, through the untiring energies of the Warden, and all the other officers in the prison. … Shut out from the world, and deprived of the ordinary privileges of life, they carefully note and remember every little kindness, and we believe are more easily and better governed thereby than by the use of harsher means. It is nothing unusual to see discharged convicts, about to go from the prison, recount the little kindnesses that had been extended to them, and with tears of gratitude in their eyes, thank the officers for the interest they had manifested in their welfare.”
Folsom or Rocklin for branch prison?
“On the fifth of February, we also visited the proposed site for a Branch State Prison, (near) Folsom and twenty-five miles from Sacramento, on the line of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. We found a rather mountainous country, abounding in pine, oak, and smaller shrubbery, with scant indications of vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the proposed site. Blue limestone rock and granite of a superior quality were found in an almost inexhaustible supply.
“The American River flows by, almost on a level with the proposed site of the work yard, and contains a powerful body of water, which has a natural fall in some places of from ten to twenty feet. To the rear of the present granite quarries, and about one half mile-distant, was found a strip of land capable of cultivation for prison uses,” they noted.
“On the fourteenth of February we visited Rocklin, one of the proposed sites for the location of the Branch State Prison, which is … on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad, and distant from Sacramento about twenty-three miles. The land in the vicinity of the proposed site and surrounding Rocklin is of a rich soil, capable of producing vegetables in abundance. It is slightly rolling land, and in the composition of the clay is useful for the manufacture of brick of a hard quality, almost the equivalent of fire brick, and not of the soft, floury substance used at present in San Quentin.
“The country, for miles on all sides, seems to abound in live oak and pine, principally pine, and the land seems well irrigated from living streams. Rocklin stands in a valley, and is flanked on the east and west by rising hills, which are distant some two miles. We visited the granite quarries, which are very extensive and comparatively undeveloped.
“A good foundation of rock to build on can be had by sinking a few feet, and there is no grading, filling in, or excavating required, as in the case at Folsom, thus overcoming a great expense in this one item for a start. Water for the use of the prison could be conveniently had in abundance by a little judicious ditching and sinking of wells a very few feet from the surface.”
The committee voted 9 to 4 in favor of Folsom as the site for the branch prison, according to the report.