CDCR Time Capsule

Medical inspection shows 1878 San Quentin conditions

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

A late 1870s report by the State Board of Health included a section on the conditions at San Quentin State Prison. Unlike reports by the prison board, or of those penned by legislative commissioners, this one was handled by a physician.

Dr. A.M. Stout visited the prison July 18, 1877. His report criticizes of the bedpan-style bucket system, the crowded working conditions for the pharmacist and resident physician, and details the methods used by inmates at meal time.

As part of our CDCR Time Capsule series, this has been edited for length and clarity but otherwise appears as it was originally published in 1878.

Two solid iron prison doors.
The old cells at San Quentin, undated. (Photo courtesy UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.)

The San Quentin State Prison tour begins

By the courtesy of Warden Lt. Governor Johnson and the most assiduous and hospitable attentions of Resident Physician Dr. Pelham, a thorough inspection of the institution, though protracted, became very agreeable.

The destructive fire during the last biennial period has caused the cells to be overcrowded, until the new series of cells can be completed. All contemplated reforms have consequently been impeded, and we must deplore rather than condemn whatever is considered defective.

The construction of the cells for the new prison, the plans for which were kindly exhibited by Mr. Bennett, the architect, will be a very great amelioration. Their ventilation will be well provided for. The cells now in use — and much time must elapse before the new ones can be finished — are very small, say six feet six inches by eight feet, and eight feet six inches high, with arch roof, with very small apertures for ventilation, no provision for light, except a small slit … in the iron door, no water supply, and provided at night with a bucket for physical purposes. The emanations from this utensil, often imperfectly closed, must, therefore, infect the cell until its removal in the morning.

Certainly these are favorable conditions for the generation of typhoid and other septic diseases. And yet the location of this prison means that a little fresh air appears to possess wonderful disinfecting properties. But, this whole bucket system, with all its ills, can, at moderate expense, be replaced by trap-pans, water, and ventilation pipes.

Prisoners in these cells can only have light by buying their own candles. If prison discipline is to be reformatory, with a view to restore the convict to society, as a pardoned person, who has paid the forfeit of his crime, we fail to see either the gentleness of persuasion or the force of education in this treatment. The cells should at least be clean and healthy — lighted enough to permit the convict to read and learn.

These cells are clean, as far as whitewash scrubbing, and chloride of lime can make them; but the imperfectly covered bucket immediately fouls them. And this, with the exhaustion of oxygen from the air in breathing, and the substitution of carbon oxide, together with other bodily emanations, nullifies all this apparent and commendable cleanliness.

Intermediary to these old cells, and the improved cells, as planned by the architect, Mr. Bennett, is a series of cells for the uppermost tiers in the building. These cells are very ingeniously modified.

Instead of being brick-arched and scaled, they are covered flat with iron lattice work. By this means all the cells have free ventilation through the air space under the roof. This immense amelioration permits, besides fresh air, the exit of that which is foul. The small size of the cell allows all the airs to change, and thus the various ideas of ventilation based on the densities of gases are quieted. Again, light is admitted, the extra consumption of air by burning candles is economized, and that vital electricity which is derived from light, and essential to vital energy, is amply provided; for we believe that the atomic ray of a pencil of light, by its heat and chemical capacity, aids to produce that peculiar vital force which vivifies the body.

Grainy photo of a cramped prison hospital room with multiple beds and a table.
The San Quentin hospital in the 1870s. (Photo courtesy UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.)


Two wards in the second story of a back building, clean, and well ventilated, constitute the space allowed for the sick. Of course, with so large a population, though healthy, it is overcrowded. We suggest an entire remodeling of this department. The daily patients not in hospital must all pass through a ward to appear for inspection and prescription in the physician’s office, and the office is so small that three persons in it are uncomfortably crowded. Its only access is through a hospital

The apothecary occupies an adjacent place for himself and his material no larger, while both physician and apothecary, acting necessarily in each other’s presence, must, by the same necessity, be both in each other’s way. The whole plan appears especially designed for the discomfort of everybody concerned.


Steam power is the great engine of the kitchen, presided over by Mr. Coffee, the courteous engineer of the machine.

This elegant engine appears omnipresent with its noiseless persuasion. Emblematic of prison discipline, its irresistible power a pears only as a gentle solicitor and obedient performer. Steam cooks the meats, and the soups, and the vegetables, and lifts the elevators for their distribution. The coffee, ground, is put in a sack and immersed in a large tank or boiler; steam heats the water and makes the coffee.

On visiting the dining hall, the tables appeared unnecessarily narrow and crowded. The occupants being too crowded may be owing to the want of room in consequence of the recent fire. But now, the eating of the food is a sad spectacle. It may be inevitable, from the dangers of abuse, but the necessity of eating without knives and forks, only spoons being allowed, gives to the repast a rude and revolting aspect.

The picture of a thousand or more men crowded at a narrow board, gnawing their bones with finger-aid only, breaking up their bread into their soup with greasy fingers, and only a spoon wherewith to feed, is hard and revolting. Yet we know that prison life is no banquet, and that often soldiers on long campaigns, sacrificing themselves for patriotism, do not fare much better.

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