CDCR Time Capsule, Rehabilitation

1874: Report details rehabilitation efforts

Prison building behind a pasture.
San Quentin State Prison, circa 1874. (Photo: California State Library.)

An 1874 report by the state prison investigative committee details rehabilitation efforts, lists a typical menu and describes San Quentin. The committee also made their case to establish a branch prison at Folsom.

The committee chair wrote, “We inspected the various departments, and the workshops and all other buildings. (We) also heard applicants for commutation of sentences, and such other business as we thought our duty called for.”

Inspectors urge separating first-time offenders

The committee found deteriorating walls, poorly ventilated cells and a need to separate first-time offenders from career criminals.

“We found the wall (surrounding the cells is) undergoing fast decay. The upper brick portion cannot last much longer without repair, having been constructed of a very inferior quality of brick. (The wall) 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. (We) suggest a good coat of asphaltum be (used to stop) further decay,” the report states.

As many before pointed out, a classification system was desperately needed as a way to keep cells well ventilated.

“(The cells and dormitory are deplorable), in direct violation of all the established laws of physiology and hygiene. (A healthy person) should have, at the very least, five hundred cubic feet of well ventilated space.

“Also to be deplored (is) the unguarded practice of commingling all ages and classes indiscriminately together.

“This system of crowding so many human beings in such small space should be stopped as soon as possible. No cell should be occupied by more than two prisoners at most. We recommend building additional cells and grading prisoners,” 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. (It is a) two-story brick building. The upper part is occupied as a hospital, with wards and dispensary, (while) the lower part (has) a hospital kitchen and lockup for convalescent patients. The hospital has two very close and poorly located wards and a pantry (for) dispensary and surgery,” the report states.

“This building is too small for an institution verging on one 1,000 souls. Kitchen access (can be difficult for a) physician (needing) warm water, which is often (necessary for) patients. 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.”

Comfort for the women

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 40 by 20 feet two-story brick building. (It is) occupied by the Captain of the Yard and Turnkey in the lower story. Female prisoners (are housed) in the upper story.

“The female department is conveniently partitioned off into wards or rooms, with two beds in each. 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 flower garden. The female department is well located, convenient, and very comfortable. In this building the brick also looks a little decayed. It would be advisable to use prompt measures to preserve from further incursions of time and rain,” the committee found.

A standard menu

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.

Jobs and education

“In each and all of the departments visited by us, we were surprised to find the men employed, in point of intelligence, to be above the average. The manner of working (was) as rapid and perfect as any free labor elsewhere could be. Of the total number confined in the prison, which is 941, there are about 530 employed. Of these, 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 (floor) of the four-and-a-half story brick building. (It is) 60 by 40 feet, well furnished with benches, a pulpit, tables and organ. (The room is) enlivened by instructive and domestic charts and pictures, which are tastefully displayed from the walls. There is a library of over 3,000 volumes. 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.”

Rehabilitation efforts

“After the close of the religious services, the school was immediately convened (in the church), under the direct supervision of Miguel Smith, Moral Instructor. (He) has a hard and onerous task to perform in the shaping out or mending up of shattered principles (and) minds. A work, which, in the interest of humanity and the reform of convicts, has (often) been overlooked.

Man in striped prison clothing works under a sign that reads State Prison Grounds.
Entrance to the state prison grounds at San Quentin, circa 1870s. UC Berkeley Lone Mountain College collection.

“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.

Moral department

“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,” the report states.

“(A convict’s) 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. 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. 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 visited the proposed site for a Branch State Prison, (near) Folsom and 25 miles from Sacramento, on the line of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. We found a rather mountainous country, abounding in pine, oak, and smaller shrubbery. Blue limestone rock and superior quality granite were found.

“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 10 to 20 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. (It) is on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad, and 23 miles from Sacramento. The land (around the) proposed site (has) 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 hard brick, (like) fire brick.

“The country, for miles on all sides, seems to abound in live oak and 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.”

The committee voted 9 to 4 in favor of Folsom as the site for the branch prison, according to the report.

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

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