Division of Juvenile Justice, Unlocking History

Prison staff, offenders honored fallen soldiers in memorial ceremonies

Men and women place flowers on gravestones.
Salvation Army Major Cleve Stairs, volunteers and inmates place flowers near gravestones, Memorial Day, San Quentin State Prison, circa 1930s. Courtesy Salvation Army Museum of the West.

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

The bloody Civil War pit family against family. Some border states’ volunteer companies fought on both sides, depending on the attitudes of that region. After the war, Decoration Day was established to honor those who gave their lives. Eventually, the day became known as Memorial Day. California prison staff members, inmates and the public would often come together to pay their respects in local cemeteries – including those on prison grounds.

Folsom State Prison

The state’s second-oldest prison had a tradition of helping with Memorial Day celebrations. In 1907, the event committee thanked Warden Archibald Yell for assisting.

In 1913, inmates tending the gardens at Folsom Prison gathered as many flowers as they could for use in Sacramento’s Memorial Day ceremonies.

“Tons of flowers will be received from Folsom prison by the courtesy of Warden Johnston, and from the state Capitol grounds through the courtesy of George Radcliffe, superintendent of the grounds and building, in addition to the great amount to be received from the yards and gardens of Sacramento. Every soldier’s and sailor’s grave In Sacramento will be decorated by these noble women early next Friday morning before the heat of the day. It is requested that all persons to donate flowers for Memorial day deliver them to Foresters’ hall Thursday morning,” Sacramento Daily Union, May 26, 1913.

Warden James A. Johnston was thanked by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), organizer for the ceremonies.

“Resolutions tendering a vote of thanks to those who assisted in the Memorial Day celebration were passed at a meeting of the Memorial Day committee of the G. A. R. yesterday. … The resolutions thanked George Radcliffe, Capitol superintendent. for the use of Memorial Grove, Warden J. A .Johnson of the Folsom prison and State Gardener Vortriede for the generous offering of flowers, the city commissioners the funds provided and all those who participated and helped,” reported the Sacramento Union, June 3, 1913.

The following year during a Memorial Day service at the prison chapel, offenders learned of a horrific shipwreck and offered their condolences.

“At the Folsom prison yesterday, Capt. William J. Day, superintendent of the California prison commission, delivered a Memorial Day address on the subject ‘Flowers for the Living.’ A great crowd filled the chapel and listened most attentively to Capt. Day, who declared that while he thoroughly believed in honoring our hero dead, he also felt that it would not be amiss to let people have their bouquets while they were alive, able to smell and enjoy them. ‘These flowers,’ said the speaker, ‘may be encouraging words, kindly acts and noble deeds.’ The speaker gave the prisoners an account of the disastrous shipwreck of the Empress, which so stirred them that the following resolutions were unanimously passed,” reported the Sacramento Union, June 1, 1914. “‘Resolved, that we prisoners in Folsom prison, having heard with great sorrow the account of the awful shipwreck, do herewith express sympathy for the hundreds of friends and relatives of the victims in this their sad hour of affliction and grief, and earnestly commend them to the comforting heart of our Heavenly Father.'”

Preston School of Industry

“Decoration Day at Preston. This sacred day was observed not by strewing flowers on the graves of Civil War heroes, but by burying beneath huge beds of roses, the graves of the six boys who are buried here. It was an impressive sight to see those 400 boys, each arrayed in his new summer uniform and carrying a bunch of roses, form the battalion in front of the main building and go marching down the pine-shaded land and around the winding path to the isolated spot where six homeless boys are buried,” according to the Preston Review, June 3, 1911. “An inspiring sight – and also a sad one. As the band was playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ one could have seen officers and visitors of both sexes getting out their handkerchiefs, the men trying to hide their tears by a pretense of blowing their noses. After the solemn ceremony was over, the battalion marched back and assembled in the chapel where the rest of the exercises were held.”

San Quentin State Prison

“Decoration Day was observed in the State Prison at San Quentin with exercises quite appropriate to the occasion, and the place, though the ‘decorations,’ except those upon the stage, which was very handsomely and tastefully draped, were largely omitted, being confined chiefly to the prison stripes, which those who wore them were supposed to bear as symbolic of their suffering, like the men whose memory was being honored, ‘for their country’s good,'” reported the Sausalito News, June 5, 1891.

“The program for the day was as follows: ‘Bugle calls,’ prayer; ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ sung by the Prison Quartet; recitation by Comrade C. M. Blackburn; remarks by the Chaplain, Rev. A. Drahms, who closed by introducing the Orator of the Day, Col. Homer B. Sprague, of George H. Thomas Post, No. 2, who delivered an eloquent and stirring address, which was received with much enthusiasm, and seemed to be highly appreciated by all who listened to it. Song by the Prison Choir, accompanied by a string band composed entirely of convicts. Medley of patriotic airs, by the full prison band, performed with great effect, the exercises closing with bugle call, ‘Lights out.'”

In 1910, Warden Hoyle’s Memorial Day services deeply affected many of those attending.

“An address on liberty, delivered by A.G. Burnett of the appellate court of Sacramento at Memorial Day services held (at San Quentin May 29) for the convicts, brought tears to many prisoners. Attorney T.L. Hatfield, who is known for this interest in prison affairs, also spoke, his remarks being along religious and moral lines. There services were arranged by Warden J.E. Hoyle according to his annual custom,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 30, 1910.

Whittier State School

“Decoration day was observed in Whittier. The old soldiers were marshaled to the state school chapel by the school drum corps. An address was there delivered by Judge Owens of Los Angeles. Good vocal music was also rendered by a Whittier quartette, and by the boys of the school. The soldiers and a number of others then repaired to the cemetery, where the grave of the only veteran interred there, viz.: F. F. Weed, was decorated. The old soldiers also kindly decorated the grave of Mrs. Lilla Lindley, the deceased wife of (school superintendent) Dr. Lindley,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, June 2, 1893.

The institution was later renamed the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility.

History of Memorial Day

  • May 5, 1868 – General John Logan officially proclaims Decoration Day. On May 30 of that year, flowers are placed on the graves of Union soldiers at Arlington Cemetery.
  • 1869-1911 – Other states begin to adopt the holiday, featuring parades, speeches, and events commemorating the Civil War dead. The name of the holiday gradually changes to Memorial Day.
  • 1919-1920 – While Decoration/Memorial Day originally honored Civil War dead, newspapers call for remembering those killed in The Great War (World War I) and eventually all wars.
  • 1971 – Memorial Day becomes an officially recognized federal holiday.
Boys in white band uniforms playing instruments march in front of others along hillsides while two men on horseback look on.
The student body, led by the Preston School Band, returns from the school cemetery on Decoration Day, undated.