Unlocking History

Prison visiting has long played rehabilitative role

Drawing of people talking through a screen while guard watches.
A newspaper illustration of visiting at San Quentin, published in the San Francisco Call, Jan. 21, 1900.

Prison visiting has been an important part of rehabilitation for more than a century, maintaining family connections while incarcerated. The experience for friends and family has evolved since the early days of the California prison system. Around 1900, incarcerated individuals were allowed 15 minutes once per month.

Even so, prison management recognized the importance of trying to make the experience positive. This installment of Unlocking History captures the essence of visiting at a time before automobiles, airplanes and paved highways.

Variety of visitors at San Quentin

In 1900, a reporter from the San Francisco Call was allowed in the visiting area. The reporter documented how the prison handled the overall experience for the families. The newspaper described a variety of people who visited inmates such as religious advisers, friends, siblings, mothers, fathers and spouses.

The reporter took a horse-drawn long wagon from the train to the prison. Other riders included visitors and a Salvation Army volunteer.

Red tape, railing and nets

“Arriving at the prison, the vastness, the stillness and the ‘red tape’ of everything made me feel as if I had come to a funeral. In the reception room, every one sat around looking solemn and talking in an undertone.

“Adjoining the reception room is a large apartment divided in the center by a wooden railing about three feet high. To both sides of this railing is fastened a closely woven netting, which extends to the ceiling.

“Behind (this) double screen, (incarcerated people) are placed. Here, for 15 short minutes, they talk across three inches of wire-enclosed space.

“I subsided rather uneasily into a corner, feeling I was intruding on emotions to which I was a stranger. But these people were absorbed in their own affairs and despairingly indifferent to all else,” according to the newspaper.

“The prisoners of San Quentin are permitted to see their friends only once every month. (Therefore) it is not surprising that long pent-up grief (expresses itself through) bitter tears,” the article stated.

Prison visiting staff described as ‘genial’

“Even the tall genial guard, whose long years of service have made him familiar with such scenes, has to speak harshly sometimes to clear away a (lump) in his throat.”

The warden ensures there is music and a printed program.

“As the door opened and closed to admit the visitors, the blare of brass instruments danced into the room. … I went in search of the band. (Finding them, they were) clad in new, trim uniforms, plentifully sprinkled with brass buttons. The ‘Ess Que Bee’ were standing in a circle, cutting the cold air into harmonious slices.

“Warden Aguirre believes ‘music hath charms to soothe’ and since the convict band was organized, he has had ample opportunity to note its efficacy for good. The interest prisoners take in the band is marvelous. When a man, criminal or otherwise, has something good to think about, there is that much less room in his mind for mischief.”

Making the prison visiting experience special

“On visiting days a special program is printed, and Becker, the notorious forger, devotes all his inventive genius to making the tiny, folded square as artistic as possible. At 2 o’clock, the visiting hours are over. The clank of the iron doors reverberates and echoes down the long corridors and the prisoners go back to the daily treadmill of convict life, nursing in their hearts the little sunshine that may have filtered in through the gloomy, mysterious looking ‘screen.'”

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about today’s visiting process.

Read more Unlocking History.