Rehabilitation in the the prison system began with charitable acts from volunteers and soon found allies in the custody staff.
Prior to 1849, there were only six jails in California, but the influx of gold seekers meant the state needed a way to deal with lawbreakers.
To address crime, the state passed a series of laws while also establishing a state prison. Rehabilitation soon followed, proving a collaborative effort between custody and support staff. The following are some examples of such cooperation through the history of the state prison system.
Early process featured education through visiting clergy
In the 1850s and 1860s, clergy from various faiths visited San Quentin State Prison to minister to the incarcerated. In 1858, Gov. John Weller instructed the prison warden to invite “ministers in good standing to officiate,” according to the 1961 book, “Chronicles of San Quentin” by Kenneth Lamott.
“A Reverend Doctor Gilbert had volunteered to act as chaplain, and, beginning in December 1858, regular protestant services were held in the mess hall. The next year, the Society of Friends began to send workers to the prison. In March 1860, the first Mass was said by a Father Gallagher. Two months later, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany himself preached in the mess hall.”
Captain Gilchrist suggests building a school
Seeing positive behavioral changes, San Quentin Captain of the Yard R. Gilchrist proposed creating a prison school in 1868. Gilchrist oversaw cell blocks, workshops and discipline, according to Lamott. He was promoted only a year earlier. At the time, the prison housed roughly 730 incarcerated people.
“Gilchrist is making an effort to establish a school among the convicts at San Quentin. His effort is warmly seconded by the State Prison Commission,” reported the Marin Journal, Dec. 12, 1868.
“Like most prison captains, Gilchrist was a promoted guard, but he appears to have had a more humane view of mankind than most whose sight,” Lamott wrote.
The school was a success, overseen at first by the captain, then later by a newly created position.
“Gilchrist’s school thrived. The first donation of $20 from a San Rafael philanthropist was reinforced by money and books collected in San Francisco. By the time C.C. Cummings, a former superintendent of schools in Mendocino County, was appointed to the newly created post of moral instructor in 1870, the school’s 250 (students) were applying themselves to reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, mathematics, German and Spanish. The classes met in the chapel … after Sunday services. The teachers were convicts,” Lamott wrote.
By this point, the prison library had grown to 2,000 volumes.
A group of newspaper reporters were given a tour by Lt. Gov. Holden and Capt. Gilchrist. The reporters were impressed with the rehabilitative efforts.
“School is held in the chapel every Sunday and on every day there is time for reading and writing and for work on one’s own account,” reported the Russian River Flag, Nov. 10, 1870. “Many of them take advantage of their spare hours and are seen writing and reading in the chapel.”
The Moral Instructor position was later renamed Chaplain.
Chaplain, custody staff emphasize need for rehabilitation in 1900
After an exhaustive study, SQ Chaplain August Drahms wrote about the causes of crime and drawbacks of punishment over reform. In “The Criminal,” published in 1900, Drahms said pure punishment was not enough to deter criminals.
Incorporating rehabilitation and reform ideals into the prison system was “yet in its formative stage,” he wrote.
“The most enlightened penologists and jurists confess to the inadequacy of punishment as either a preventive or repressive measure.
“Punishment, instead of proving a deterrent, more frequently (does the opposite). Shocking punishment only lights anew the smoldering fires of resentment,” he wrote. “The chief value of incarceration should lie in corrective measures (such as) educative facilities, psychological and industrial, that may result in moral and social rehabilitation.”
Drahms, an immigrant and Civil War veteran, was far ahead of his time. He called for new prisons with different focuses to best serve the mission. He also advocated against harsh punishment methods in use at the time.
“For example, prisons should be (separated) for first offenders and habitual criminals with each institution varying widely and radically as to their construction, policy, and managerial requirements, (as well as) in the treatment and methods of handling inmates,” he wrote.
“(For repeat offenders), prison should not by any means be a place of ease and comfort, but of hard labor and coarse but healthy (food), with a correspondingly strict regime, without (stomping) upon the inmate’s sense of self-respect. Strictness of discipline, hard labor, and physical inconvenience is one thing; unnecessary hardship and brutality, in the sense of self-degradation and physical pain, is quite another.”
Who was Drahms?
Drahms was born in Prussia in 1849. In 1856, his family relocated to America, settling in Illinois. While a young teen, he enlisted in Company B, 17th Illinois Cavalry. During a battle at Lexington, Missouri, he was wounded and “lay helpless and at the mercy of the Missouri (forces) during the Price Raid,” according to the National Tribune, December 13, 1900.
Drahms served until the end of the war in 1865. He was only 17 when he mustered out of service. According to reports, he was “strongly recommended to the President for appointment to the Military Academy at West Point.”
Drahms passed away in 1927 at 78 years old.
Folsom chaplain says rehabilitation works
Echoing modern efforts to rehabilitate inmates following decades of tough-on-crime measures, in 1909 Folsom Prison Chaplain William H. Lloyd touted the benefits of emphasizing reform over harsh punishment.
“A large crowd gathered to hear an address on prison reform by Rev. Lloyd .. at Central M.E. Church yesterday evening,” reported the Sacramento Union, July 13, 1909. “The lecturer declared that the last 125 years have shown more results than all preceding history in prison reform, and the last quarters of a century has brought more changes for the better than the other 100 years.”
“During those recent years,” said Chaplain Lloyd, “old theories, hoary with age, have been abandoned; systems have been overturned; methods of management have been transformed, and these radical changes are being followed rapidly by others still better calculated to represent the spirit of the age in which we live. Punishment is no longer held to be the chief aim in the incarceration of the criminal, for the idea of society taking vengeance on the offender is fast giving place to the more humane view that men are imprisoned to protect society in the first instance, together with the hope that they may be brought to reform their ways.
“In our two prisons,” continued the speaker, “are nearly 3,000 inmates. … Our prison authorities deserve much credit for the earnest effort put forth by them to better condition, and they are to be congratulated on the measure of success attending in many respects their endeavors…. Those prisoners who really desire to reform will be (encouraged). Where there is now one convict reformed, we hope to see five transformed into good citizens in the near future.”
Due to his success at Folsom Prison, Rev. Lloyd was reassigned to San Quentin the following year.
Arts as rehabilitative tool
San Quentin Prison Resident Chaplain Lazure saw the need for arts the prison, requesting help from outside groups.
“On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Chaplain Lazure of San Quentin, director of education at the institution, told the Friday Morning Club of the need for new instruments for the (prison) band,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 12, 1921. “Mrs. H.H. Koons (led the) committee which is working to raise a fund for this purpose. Music is as valuable in educational work and (raising) morale in prison life as any other factor.”
According to the newspaper, the band was directed by “Professor” Damascus Garcia Gallur, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
“Gallur is enthusiastic over (the band’s) achievements, but (they) are handicapped by lack of instruments. Those they do possess are more than 30 years old and very nearly worn out,” the newspaper reported. “It will require $3,000 to provide new instruments.”
Finding the good in people
“‘There is some good in every man, and the business of San Quentin is to find it,’ said Edgar S. Slack, sales manager of the manufacturing department of the penal institution. (He) was in Chico yesterday with Warden James A. Johnston conferring with the Board of Education on details regarding specifications for the high school furniture upon which the prison furniture factory will bid. Slack, who has been associated with prison work for many years, is acquainted with all the noted criminals in the country. He knows the details of their regular daily life, most of which is spent in prison, and has not lost faith in (those) separated from society for their deeds,” reported the Chico Record, July 15, 1921.
“One of the cardinal rules of Warden Johnston is fair play,” Slack said. “(Someone) serving a sentence for the lowest crime is accorded the same treatment as a banker or a preacher who has violated his trust. The principle of fair play is (instilled in the) prisoners from the day they are received. It is by this method we attempt to salvage society’s derelicts.”
Job training helps with reentry
He also told of reentry success stories.
“Teaching the prisoners some useful trade is one of the most successful ways of guaranteeing good citizenship, Slack said. He told of one youth who was paroled from a 10 year term, has been out for six years, earning $10 a day as foreman of a machine shop. He learned the trade in San Quentin, and was able to make enough money to marry, buy his own home and live a useful life,” he said.
“Being closely associated with prisoners and their carefree attitude, one becomes hardened in a sense,” Slack continued. “But,” he added, “there is one sight that no guard or prison official can steel himself to watch more than once. That is, an aged mother walking to the steel outer door of San Quentin with her wayward son (or) a gray headed father, who has been sentenced to spend the remainder of his life behind the bars, saying his farewells at the prison door to a young daughter who goes as far as she is permitted before she reluctantly leaves her parent.”
The following year, the rehabilitative efforts of San Quentin staff were noted in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, February 1922.
“There is only one institution which has undertaken to face the problem seriously, and that is San Quentin. … There I found genuine interest in education, and an ambition to attempt the experiment of turning the prison into an educational institution. Some 900 men were registered in 1,100 individual courses. The chaplain, who is in charge of the work, has the cooperation of the University of California. He has made a genuine beginning of what is the most interesting and promising educational experiment in American prisons,” wrote Frank Tannenbaum.
Two people with different viewpoints on prison
In 1929, Slack spoke of two incarcerated men with very different outcomes.
According to Slack, a 17-year-old boy who couldn’t speak English was sentenced to a term in San Quentin.
“The young fellow had been sent to prison for a crime engineered by older men,” he said. “He studied in the prison school, learning to read and write. In due time, he was assigned to work the furniture factory, becoming a highly skilled furniture make. When his time was up, (I secured) him a job in a San Francisco furniture factory.”
Eventually, the former offender became a foreman at the factory earning $12 per day while overseeing a crew of 40.
“(The young convict) said San Quentin was the best thing that could ever have happened to him. He got an education and learned a profitable trade,” Slack said.
The other example was a repeat offender, a safe-cracker they nicknamed “Jimmy Valentine” after a character in a popular play.
The safe-cracker helped design some safes at the prison to make them more secure.
“When the representative of a nationally known lock (company visiting) to install combinations (on the new safes), he specifically asked for Jimmy,” Slack said. The lock maker claimed he had a lock that could not be cracked. Jimmy had the lock open in 10 minutes.
The representative offered Jimmy a job at the lock factory, paying $300 per month. Jimmy refused.
“You mean I’ve got to wait a whole 30 days for my $300? Nope, I don’t want your job,” he said.
“For the old convict, imprisonment (was) punishment after you get caught. For the young convict, it (was) an opportunity to (improve) himself to become a useful member of society. (We are) doing everything to equip (them) with training and education (to prepare for reentry),” Slack said.
Warden James Johnston: Prevention vs correction
One warden who pushed for reforms inside and outside prison walls was James A. Johnston. He made clear to his staff it was their job to help inmates improve their chances of successful reentry. After his career at Folsom and SQ, Johnston went on to be named the first warden at Alcatraz federal penitentiary.
If a young person was getting into trouble at home or school, Johnston believed incarceration should be the last resort.
“Prevention is much easier than cure,” he told a church gathering, as reported in the Press Democrat, Feb. 21, 1922. “It is about time we turned our attention to preventive measures such as:
- medical and dental inspection in the schools;
- education that really fits for citizenship;
- vocational training;
- character building;
- measures to prevent unemployment;
- war on habit-forming drugs and excessive use of alcohol;
- recognizing criminal tendencies assert themselves early in life, they should be checked by proper training in the home and (community).”
He said once someone lands in a state prison, it is much more difficult to correct their outlook.
Johnston said the prison system was obligated to try to rehabilitate those in their care.
“We regard it as our duty to take (those) received by commitment and strive to train him for better citizenship (after release,)” Johnston said.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor