CDCR Time Capsule

School, library, rehabilitation highlighted in 1874 San Quentin report

Prison building behind a pasture.
San Quentin State Prison, circa 1874. (Photo: California State Library.)

Early prison efforts focused on educating inmates

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

San Quentin rehabilitation efforts in the 1870s were very different than they are today, as one report demonstrates.

In 1874, the Joint Commission of the Senate and Assembly reported on the condition of the State Prison at San Quentin. One section focused on the Moral Instructor, the school and volunteer chaplains. The commissioners recommended the state appoint an official chaplain and expand the educational offerings. At the time, the school, chapel and library were all in the same room. As part of CDCR’s Time Capsule series, this has been edited for length and clarity. Otherwise, it is published as it was written. (Learn more about the prison chaplains or explore more state prison history.)

San Quentin chapel, school room and library

We next visited the chapel, school room, and library, which is in a room in the fourth story of the four-and-a-half story brick building, measuring 60 by 40 feet, and is well furnished with benches, a pulpit, tables, organ, with instructive and domestic charts and pictures displayed from the walls.

There is a library of over 3,000 volumes, and great care and neatness is displayed by the prisoners in the treatment of books borrowed by them.

About 2,500 books are taken out monthly. There are accommodations capable of seating about 500.

Religious exercises

Services are conducted in this building every Sunday morning, which are entirely voluntary. Three Sundays in the month, the California Prison Commission sends a clergyman to officiate, and the other Sunday is occupied by the Roman Catholic clergyman. The majority of the prisoners confined are Roman Catholics. In our visit on Sunday morning we were present at a sermon delivered by the Rev. Albert Williams, and we never yet have, at any time or in any place, seen a more devout and reverent class of worshipers. The services were opened and closed by singing, which was led by a choir, joined in by the convicts, and accompanied by an organ, all of which would reflect credit on any ordinary assembly of people religiously disposed.

The San Quentin school was in the church. People sit in a prison's church pews with books around the walls.
The San Quentin Library, circa 1870s, was also the chapel. (Photo: UC Berkeley Bancroft Library).

Rehabilitation through school

After the close of the religious services the school was immediately convened, which is under the direct supervision of Miguel Smith, Moral Instructor, who, indeed, has a hard and onerous task to perform in the shaping out or mending up of shattered principles, minds, etc.; a work, which, in the interest of humanity and the reform of convicts, has been overlooked. Professor Smith here, during his term, has made great advances in the way of educating and teaching good morals to the prisoners. Here, in the school-room, can be seen old gray-headed and young men sitting side by side, learning and being willing to learn. While some are studying the classics, others are learning to read the alphabet and the primary grades of the beginner.

In this school there is taught reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, bookkeeping, navigation, trigonometry, Spanish, German, Latin, French, etc. These studies are taught in classes — which number from six to 15 — and are presided over by a monitor, who is selected by the Moral Instructor.

Among the scholars are men of all grades, colors, and nationalities, sitting side by side and studying each other’s languages. The attendance, at both church and school, is very large, averaging from 300 to 500 — the system being voluntary.

Number of prisoners that can read, 691; number of prisoners that can write, 628; number of prisoners that can do both, 628; number of prisoners that can do neither, 240. In point of intelligence, these figures will compare most favorably with the proportion of prisoners in other American and European prisons.

By inquiry from statistics, we find that, of the whole number committed and in confinement, the prisons of France have 43% who can either read or write; Belgium, 51%; Netherlands, 62%; Switzerland, 40%; Italy, 50%; Great Britain, 40%.

Literary club

After school is dismissed, the teachers are organized into what is known as a literary club, the purport of which is to compile essays, debate intelligent and moral questions, and the cultivation of intelligence generally. Among these teachers are some very fine intellects, and the meetings are extraordinarily interesting — music on the organ, and singing being also indulged in.

Reformation of prisoners

In the moral department of a prison lays the future reform, if any, of the convict; and, in the furtherance of this, hope and encouragement are held out for all to cultivate feelings of self respect, to seek improvement and reformation. It has too often been the custom to treat the convicts as a separate and distinct class from the rest of mankind, and that peculiar legislation was required, some power or process whereby criminals, as it were, could be put into a machine and turned out models. With a few exceptions, these convicts are not essentially different from the rest of mankind, subject to the same influences, moved by the same passions, desires, affections, hopes, and fears, and that the responsibility of his repentance and a better life rests on himself.

Education and labor essential

The healthy occupation of mind and body is powerful in the good work of criminal reformation. By labor and education, the convict is reminded that the way of the transgressor is hard; that a dishonest life is a failure; that to be happy and respected one must be honest and upright. Shut out from the world, and deprived of the ordinary privileges of life, convicts remember every little kindness, and we believe are more easily and better governed thereby than by the use of harsher means.

It is nothing unusual to see discharged convicts, about to go from the prison, recount the little kindnesses that had been extended to them, and with tears of gratitude in their eyes, thank the officers for the interest they had manifested in their welfare.

Further education necessary

And with the present system of education, a reform should be further instituted, looking to the developing of the education of convicts. As the system at present works, only two hours on Sunday are given to teaching. This cause could be further advanced by giving the convicts one hour’s schooling each day, after supper.

The illiterate should be taught not alone a trade or occupation, but taught a common education, a desire to perfect which cannot but be experienced by the intelligent judgment of every humane citizen who has the welfare and interest of the State at heart.

Over 80% of these men will soon be abroad in society again. Without education, you force upon the community hardened criminals — graduated by the prison surroundings — and not reformed convicts. Therefore, we advise one hour’s schooling each evening after supper during the Summer months. In this department we would add that the moral instructor seems to meet the required ends in the matter of education. By all means keep the moral and religious instructors separate.

Rehabilitation of discharged convicts

But, with all this interest taken in the reform and development of the convict, a great mistake has been (happening). The most perfect system of reform in prisons, and that attended with the greatest success, amounts to little if the convict is to be dropped by the State when he is discharged and the doors of the prison close behind him. If ever (someone) struggling against temptations, requires assistance and friends, it is then.

If there is a period in a convict’s life when he needs to be kept from evil influences and encouraged to industry, it is when he leaves the prison. As the law now stands, a discharged convict receives the sum of $3 and a second-hand suit of clothes. We think this is inadequate and fails to meet the actual wants of the man discharged.

Based on the many convicts returning to the State Prison, they have fallen from grace for want of money, work, and food. With no one to help them, they commit a crime. We advise that $20 be given to each discharged convict, as well as a good new suit of clothes valued at $15 so they can get away from the large cities — take to the country and try and get some work whereby to earn an honest living. We are satisfied once he gets a start the result will be beneficial to the community at large and his own course in life thereafter.

Prison rehabilitation resources