Unlocking History

Stitch in time: A look at California prison uniforms through the years

Three examples of uniforms from the 1890s, 1930s and 1970s with a female officer.
Uniforms have evolved since the first prison was founded in the 1850s. From left are representations from 1900, the 1920s and the 1970s with Joyce Zink working at Folsom State Prison.

California prison uniforms have evolved for staff and the incarcerated population since the first person was convicted of a crime.

In the beginning, there was little difference between clothing worn by custody staff and the incarcerated during the 1850s.

Over the decades, that changed, mostly at the urging of the prison directors.

As part of our Unlocking History series, Inside CDCR has compiled photos from the prison’s beginnings through more modern times.

1850s and 1860s: The first two decades

Drawing of a building, long prison walls, a dock and mountain in the background.
San Quentin, circa 1859. (California State Library.)

When inmates were housed aboard ships and later in cell blocks at San Quentin, they wore the same clothing as when they were arrested. This caused confusion during escape attempts and made it much easier for inmates to simply walk away from their job assignments. According to reports at the time, it was difficult to tell the difference between inmates and staff since neither wore uniforms.

1870s and 1880s: San Quentin passes quarter-century mark

1890s: Dapper duds for staff

Other than the styles changing, clothing worn by correctional staff appeared much as it did 40 years earlier. The incarcerated population now wore prison stripes, modeled after the prison system in New York. Meanwhile, incarcerated youth wore military-style uniforms.

1900s: A new century

Correctional officer with hat and a big old-fashioned Gatling gun.
Folsom State Prison guard and Gatling gun, circa 1900. (Photo: Sacramento Public Library.)
Woman wearing large white dress sits behind a desk.
San Quentin Women’s Ward Matron Genevieve Smith, circa 1912. (Photo: Marin Public Library Anne T. Kent California Room.)

Technology began to play a larger role in the two states prisons at San Quentin and Folsom. Everything from transportation to kitchen appliances saw major overhauls. Female inmates were still housed at San Quentin, overseen by a matron, while the state’s two youth facilities continued to focus on a military style of rehabilitation.

1920s and 1930s: The beginning of standards

Road construction honor camps were the start of today’s fire camps. At the time, inmates constructed highways in the mountains and along the coast. Under the direction of reform minded wardens and state officials, a separate prison was opened in Tehachapi to house female offenders.

1940s and 1950s: Department overhaul

With the return of soldiers after World War II, and the 1944 reorganization of the Department of Corrections, more professional standards were put in place. The Guard classification was changed to Correctional Officer and more extensive training was emphasized.

1960s: Enhancing the fire camp program

Man in blue jeans, a blue shirt and metal hard hat cuts a log using a chainsaw.
An inmate firefighter demonstrates chainsaw skills at Sierra Conservation Center, circa 1965.

The 1960s saw the activation of two new facilities specifically designed to train offenders for conservation camps. California Correctional Center opened in 1963 while Sierra Conservation Center activated two years later.

1970s: Women and men work side-by-side in prison

With women going to work in men’s prisons, new California prison staff uniforms were needed. Some versions included skirts while other female uniforms had slacks.

1980s and 1990s: California prison uniforms updated

Correctional officers in formal uniforms present colors.
California Medical Facility Honor Guard, front group, circa 1988, during an exercise at the R.A. McGee Correctional Training Center.

2000s and 2010s: New name for overhauled department

Men in women wear "parole agent" jackets while escorting a handcuffed man.
Parole agents, 2007.
CDCR shoulder patch.
CDCR peace officers help maintain public safety. To reflect the mission of the department, the word Rehabilitation was added to its name during Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration in 2004.
Men and women in correctional uniforms carry a flag.
Mule Creek State Prison Honor Guard, Sept. 11 ceremony in 2019.

With the new millennium, the department changed its name to CDCR, adding Rehabilitation. There was also a major reorganization, including making the department its own agency. CDCR’s patches were redesigned to reflect the name change. Over the course of roughly 170 years, the California prison system has evolved, and so have the uniforms.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

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