Since the founding of the state prison system in the early 1850s, the incarcerated population have been allowed special concessions during national observances, such as Thanksgiving Day.
Today, they might be served a meal of turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy. Back then, they were provided fresh seafood at San Quentin while at Folsom they were served turkey or steak.
Inside CDCR takes a closer look at how prisons observed Thanksgiving throughout the years.
Volunteers help prisons observe Thanksgiving
Organized Thanksgiving events in San Quentin truly began in 1868.
“While the good people of San Francisco were preparing to enjoy Thanksgiving Day, few of them thought of (those incarcerated in) San Quentin. A year ago yesterday, several gentlemen in this city formed themselves into a committee to look after the welfare of these unfortunates. This these gentlemen have done all in their power to accomplish,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 19, 1869. “Yesterday a party of ladies and gentlemen … left on the steamer Contra Costa to be present and take part at the Thanksgiving services held at the prison.”
Some of those men visited the dining room where 100 Chinese men were eating a Thanksgiving dinner, paid for by Rev. Loomis from donations he collected. Back then, dining was segregated.
“The dinner consisted of boiled chicken, rice, green apples and coffee,” the newspaper reported.
Rev. Loomis, a former missionary in China, stayed behind in the dining room to provide a sermon in their native language.
Following religious services in the chapel, “the prisoners went to a dinner consisting of fresh pork and salad and several boxes of fruit that was brought over by (Rev. W.T.) Lucky.”
The prison committee stopped by the warden’s house for a quick meal of bread, cheese, pie, butter and cold water. One of the ministers was O.P. Fitzgerald, who would return later to continue the tradition.
The event grew in the coming years thanks to volunteers and the willingness of the wardens.
Sports, activities for Thanksgiving
“(During Independence Day and) Thanksgiving we had baseball, running, music, and dancing. Both days passed without a single untoward incident and the behavior of the men was exemplary. For Christmas we are planning a minstrel performance. These shows brighten up the monotony of ordinary prison life to a desirable degree and an occasional entertainment, held within proper bounds, is, I believe, a great aid to better discipline,” wrote Warden James A. Johnston in the Folsom Prison Warden’s Report, Nov. 30, 1912.
In 1913, leadership expanded Folsom’s offering to help observe Thanksgiving.
“Eleven hundred convicts in Folsom prison cheered the ‘movies,’ rooted like … fans at a baseball game and hugely enjoyed a special Thanksgiving dinner (and) not one broke his day’s parole, … according to an announcement last night of Acting Warden J.J. Smith. … The movie program (was shown in the) mess hall. Western drama and romantic scenes brought forth the greatest applause. A variety … were shown, among them being several scientific and educational films,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 28, 1913.
“Prison ‘turkey,’ known to the outside world as roast pork, was the feature offering of the special dinner which the convicts enjoyed. The ‘turkey’ had all the trimmings and was supplemented by mince pie, wine cake, Jennie Lind cake and coffee with broken sugar.”
After his transfer to San Quentin, Warden Johnston continued the practice.
“Thanksgiving was observed at San Quentin prison Thursday, all branches of prison work being suspended and a continuous moving picture exhibition given in the chapel for the benefit of the prisoners,” reported the Marin County Tocsin, Nov. 29, 1913. “The usual roast pork and goose dinner, garnished with all the Thanksgiving trimmings, was served to 1,900 … prisoners in the immense new dining room and even the ‘incorrigibles’ received their share of the treat. During the meal the prison band played for the diners.”
Recreational activities were added to the events.
“While requiring work from each prisoner physically able, it is also found advisable to have a reasonable amount of recreation. Therefore, athletic games, particularly baseball, are encouraged. Selected motion pictures are shown weekly. Once each year on Thanksgiving we have an athletic field day and once each year, usually New Years Day, some form of entertainment. The pictures are entertaining and instructive and being selected with care have an educational value, and the athletic games indulged in make for physical fitness,good disposition, and are also helpful in discipline,” he wrote in his 1917-18 biennial report.
San Quentin has a Thanksgiving field day
By the 1920 report, San Quentin’s Thanksgiving field day had expanded.
“Wholesome recreation makes for good health, physical fitness, good spirit and disposition, and, within the proper bounds, it is helpful to discipline,” Warden Johnston wrote. “Once each year on Thanksgiving Day, we have an Athletic Field Day in which we receive the assistance and encouragement of the officers and members of the Olympic Club of San Francisco and once each year, usually New Year’s Day, we have some form of theatrical entertainment.”
During one Thanksgiving, “Ty Cobb, Detroit baseball star, and Walter Mails, the Cleveland pitcher (and) George Hildebrand, American League umpire,” visited the Little Olympic Games, reported the San Pedro daily News, Nov. 24, 1921.
San Quentin Warden James “Big Jim” Holohan thanked organizers after the 1930 Little Olympics, emphasizing how important the event was, especially since it was brought in from the outside.
“Like education, vocational training and other constructive opportunities, athletic competition is one of the finest factors in prison and other institutional life,” he told the gathering. “(This event) does much to encourage within each imprisoned individual the desire to ‘make good’ after his or her release.”
Folsom Warden Robert Heinze offered a special meal. He was warden at the prison for 22 years, from 1944 until 1966.
“The state’s most hardened criminals will celebrate Thanksgiving in much the same way as its most respected citizens. Both probably will stuff themselves at the dinner table. Warden Robert Heinze said (one-and-a-half tons) of turkey will be provided from the Folsom prison farm (for a) Thanksgiving day dinner for the 2,728 incarcerated people.
“Each prisoner will receive about a pound of turkey accompanied by southern dressing, sweet potatoes, peas, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, celery, rolls, margarine and coffee, Heinze said,” according to a United Press report, Nov. 18, 1949.
Folsom menu shows traditional Thanksgiving meal
The Retired Correctional Peace Officers (RCPO) museum at Folsom State Prison, now known as the Big House Museum, houses artifacts from the state’s second oldest penitentiary. One of those items is Thanksgiving Day menu dated Nov. 27, 1980.
Dinner included fruit ambrosia salad, an oven-roasted turkey drumstick, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes, corn bread stuffing, seasoned Brussels sprouts, candied fresh carrots, cranberry sauce, two clover-leaf rolls, whipped margarine, pumpkin pie with whipped topping, ice cream, bread and coffee.
Supervising Cook II John Boatwright and Food Manager Leonard Benson prepared the menu.
Bishop gains new perspective
Arriving during the Gold Rush of 1849, Oscar Penn Fitzgerald began preaching to the mining camps in Sonora and the foothills. He saw crime up close in the rough gold fields. In 1867, he served as the State Superintendent of Schools.
One of Fitzgerald’s sermons had a profound effect on the bishop and is another example of how prisons observed Thanksgiving. Fitzgerald recounts his experience in “California Sketches,” first published in 1879 and expanded in 1894.
Request for San Quentin sermon
“I want you to go with me to San Quentin (and) preach a Thanksgiving sermon to the poor fellows,” the bishop was asked.
“I met our party at the Vallejo Street wharf, and we were soon steaming on our way. Passing under the guns of Fort Alcatraz, past Angel Island, all of us felt the exhilaration of the California sunshine and the bracing November air,” he wrote.
“Seated upon the platform with the prison officials and visitors, I watched my strange auditors as they came in. There were 1,000 of them,” he wrote, going into stereotypical descriptions of convicts, their general appearance and intelligence. “As the service began, the discipline of the prison showed itself in the quiet that instantly prevailed, but only a few, who joined in the singing, seemed to feel the slightest interest in it. Their eyes were wandering and their faces were vacant.”
As the bishop began his sermon and watched the reaction of those in the crowd, his impression of convicts shifted.
Change of heart for bishop Fitzgerald
“I (never) realized so fully that God’s message was to … and for lost men. A mighty tide of pity rushed in upon my soul as I looked down into the faces of my hearers. My eyes filled and my heart melted within me. I could not speak until after a pause and only then by great effort. There was a deep silence. God had touched my heart and theirs at the start,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The bishop’s understanding and empathy apparently touched the crowd.
“Then I said, ‘I will not insult you by saying that because you have an extra dinner, a few hours’ respite from your toil, and a little fresh air and sunshine, you ought to have a joyful Thanksgiving today. If I should talk thus, you would be ready to ask me how I would like to change places with you. You would despise me, and I would despise myself, for indulging in such cant. Your lot is a hard one. The battle of life has gone against you, whether by your own fault or by hard fortune, it matters not. (This) Thanksgiving day finds you locked in here, with broken lives, and wearing the badge of crime,'” he wrote.
According to Bishop Fitzgerald’s account, people on the stage also wiped tears from their eyes.
His belief, as he wrote, is many of those incarcerated “grew up in the midst of vice. For them, pure and holy lives were a moral impossibility. (Crime) with them was hereditary, organic and the result of association.”
As wardens and custody staff have witnessed throughout the years, Thanksgiving was observed in varying ways as part of the state’s efforts to rehabilitate those living within prison walls.
- In 1912, a Correctional Officer wrote about food offered during holidays.
- Correctional institution staff keep prison on task, right down to planning the menu.
- Explore state history at the California State Library.