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.
San Quentin Captain recommends education
In the 1850s and 1860s, clergy from various faiths visited San Quentin State Prison to help inmates choose a healthier path in life. 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,” written 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, and two months later, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany himself preached in the mess hall.”
Seeing the benefit these services had on the inmates, San Quentin Captain of the Yard R. Gilchrist in November 1868 proposed creating a prison school. It was surprising for such a suggestion to come from Gilchrist, who oversaw the inmates including their activities, cell blocks, workshops and discipline, according to Lamott. Gilchrist was promoted only a year earlier. At the time, the prison housed roughly 730 inmates.
“Captain 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 liberal and humane view of mankind than most men whose sight has become adjusted to the limited horizons of prison life,” Lamott wrote. “For the light it throws on his personality, it is interesting to note that later in his life Gilchrist worked as an agent for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”
The school was a success, overseen at first by the captain, and later taken over by a newly created position.
“Captain 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 scholars 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 allowed inside the walls of prison, 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; others are found making keepsakes for friends, fathers, mothers and sisters. … Professor Cummings, late of Ukiah, is certainly one of the right men in right places. He has that kind of broad humanity that can recognize even the unfortunate criminal as a fellow creature, and his honest countenance, beaming with good will to all mankind, is a shining light in the prison school room.”
The Moral Instructor position was later renamed Chaplain.
Chaplain, custody staff emphasize need for rehabilitation in 1900
After an exhaustive study, San Quentin Resident Chaplain August Drahms wrote about the causes of crime and the drawbacks of punishment over reform. In “The Criminal,” published in 1900, Drahms said pure punishment was not enough to deter criminals. He said it also fosters negativity.
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 entire inadequacy of punishment as either a preventive or repressive measure. It is a fallacy to suppose that it can in any sense prove a panacea for crime and wrongdoing.
“Punishment, however severe, does not reach the springs of human motive, or in any sense affect the sources of responsible conduct. It is a curious fact in the study of all repressive methods that inordinate severity, instead of proving a deterrent, more frequently operates as an incentive to the ills it would cure. Shocking punishment only lights anew the smoldering fires of resentment,” he wrote. “The chief value of incarceration should lie in the rational corrective measures (such as) educative facilities, psychological and industrial, that may eventually 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 set apart for first offenders, and others for habitual criminals — each class of institutions varying widely and radically both as to their nature and character, their construction, policy, and managerial requirements, and in the treatment and methods of handling the inmates,” he wrote.
“The prison for the former, while strictly within the purview of humanitarian methods, should not by any means be a place of ease and comfort, but of hard labor and coarse but healthy fare, with a correspondingly strict regime, without in any degree trenching 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.”
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 great need for new instruments for the San Quentin band, and roused the interest of the club in a movement to provide a number of such instruments,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 12, 1921. “Mrs. H.H. Koons … was made chairman of the committee which is working to raise a fund for this purpose. … It has been found that music is as valuable in the educational work and in the establishment or morale in prison life as in any other factor, and there is a marked degree of musical talent at the penitentiary at the present.”
According to the newspaper, the band was directed by “Professor” Damascus Garcia Gallur, an inmate serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
“Gallur … is enthusiastic over (the band’s) achievements, but both he and the players are handicapped by lack of instruments and by the fact that 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, who was in Chico yesterday with Warden James A. Johnston conferring with the Board of Education on details regarding the 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, knows the details of their regular daily life, most of which is spent in prison, and has not lost faith in the humans who are 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 told the newspaper. “(An inmate) 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 inculcated into the prisoners from the day they are received and it is by this method that we attempt to salvage society’s derelicts.”
He also told of success stories thanks to job training.
“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 with the cooperation of the University of California made a genuine beginning of what is the most interesting and promising educational experiment in the American prisons,” wrote Frank Tannenbaum.
In 1929, still the head of the furniture department at San Quentin, Slack told a gathering about two inmates with vastly 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 and was on the fair way toward a criminal career,” he said. “His imprisonment was a real opportunity. He studied in the prison school, learned to read and write, and in due time was assigned to work the furniture factory. He became a highly skilled furniture maker, so when his time was up (I) got him a job in a San Francisco furniture factory.”
He lost track of the young man until they bumped into each other one day on the ferry. The former offender had become a foreman at the factory, overseeing a crew of 40 employees. He was making $12 per day.
“(The offender) said his term in San Quentin was the best thing that could ever have happened to him. He got an education, learned a profitable trade and was deterred from what might have led to a life of crime,” Slack told the group.
The other inmate was a repeat offender, a safe-cracker they referred to as “Jimmy Valentine,” named for a character in a popular play.
The inmate helped design some safes at the prison to make them more secure and stronger than most manufacturers.
“When the representative of a nationally known lock concern called to install the combinations (on the new safes), he specifically asked for ‘Jimmy,’ who had been the terror of all lock makers,” Slack said. The lock maker claimed he had a lock that couldn’t be cracked.
“Get me a piece of sandpaper and I’ll show ya,” the inmate said, according to Slack, who had the lock open in 10 minutes.
The representative offered ‘Jimmy’ a job paying $300 per month to use his skills at the lock factory. The old inmate refused the job, saying he’d go 30 days without finding anything in a safe then hit a jackpot on the last one, making it all worthwhile.
“You mean I’ve got to wait a whole 30 days for my $300. … Nope, I don’t want your job,” the inmate said.
“For the old convict, imprisonment meant but one thing – punishment when you get caught. For the young convict it meant, in addition to punishment, reformation, and an opportunity to fit himself so that he could go out in the world and become a useful member of society. (San Quentin) is doing everything it can to equip (the inmates) with a training and education that will put them on the right path when their time is up,” Slack said.
Prevention vs correction
Warden James A. Johnston, often referred to as the “reform warden,” made clear to his staff first at Folsom Prison and later at San Quentin that it was their job to help inmates improve their chances of success after they walked out of the prison gates to reintegrate into society. After his state career, Johnston went on to be named the first warden at Alcatraz federal penitentiary.
He said if a young person was getting into trouble at home or school, every effort should be made to correct the issue before incarceration.
“Prevention is much easier than cure, less difficult, less costly,” 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 that will prevent unemployment; war on the habit-forming drugs, and excessive use of alcohol; recognition of the fact that youth is the time of lawlessness, that criminal tendencies assert themselves early in life, and should be checked early by proper training in the home, the school and the church.”
He said once someone lands in a state prison, it is much more difficult to correct their outlook.
“If we take hate-filled, mentally-warped (people) into prison and do not endeavor to supplant their wrong notions by better ideas of their social obligations, they may possibly leave the prison worse than when they entered.”
Johnston said the prison system was obligated to try to rehabilitate inmates under their care.
“We regard it as our bounden duty to take the (inmate) received by commitment and strive in every way possible from the day of his entrance to train him for better citizenship at the time when he will regain liberty,” Johnston said.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Learn more about California prison history.