CDCR Time Capsule

1858: San Quentin’s first ‘Rules for Convicts’ issued

Two drawings and a painting of three California politicians.
Governor John B. Weller, center, Lt. Governor Joseph Walkup, top left, and Secretary of State Ferris Forman stepped in to issue the first set of rules for inmates at San Quentin in 1858.

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

San Quentin State Prison’s early years were rife with escapes, attacks and scandal. To help stabilize the situation, Governor John B. Weller, Lt. Governor Joseph Walkup and Secretary of State Ferris Forman in 1858 issued the first Rules for Convicts at the State Prison. The three comprised the original Board of Prison Directors.

Reflecting military structure, some highlights include marching in single file, saluting custody staff when addressing them and standing at attention during assembly. The rules also mention having the cell in clean order and dumping their buckets, or toilets, every morning. The bucket system was still in use two decades later when the state health department inspected the prison.

As part of CDCR’s Time Capsule series, those rules are republished as written and have only been edited for clarity.

Respect and obedience

Convicts are to be respectful and obedient to the Officers; industrious, and submissive to the rules and regulations of the Prison; to obey all orders promptly. When about to speak to an Officer, to salute him, by raising the hand to the forehead. To exhibit no ill-temper when reproved or admonished by an Officer; not to have unnecessary conversation, or enter into any collusive proceedings with an Officer; or have unnecessary conversation with Convicts, or unto them; nor speak to any person from (outside) the Prison; nor answer any questions from such a one but by permission of the Officer.

(Convicts are) not to look at visitors. Nor leave the stand for labor; not go out of the place of labor, without permission of the Officer. They are not permitted to have any snuff or tobacco; nor to have pens, pencils, ink, or paper, without permission. Nor to carry food into the yard or shops; not to make any alteration whatever in their clothing, without permission of the Officer.

They are to be prompt in taking their proper place in the division at bell-ringing. To march in close order, body erect, and hands by the side of the thighs, and occupy such seats as may be assigned them.

They are to be cleanly in person, clothing and cell. To use the spit-dish when necessary and not spit on or out of the door, nor on the walls or floor.

No damage to cells

They are not to mark, scratch or in any way mar or disfigure the cell, nor push open the door with the feet. Not to injure or misuse any book, dish or other article of thing whatever, allowing in the cell. Not to make any change, by bringing in or carrying out any article from the cell, contrary to regulation. Bed and bedding to be kept in good order. Not to rap on the doors except in case of sickness, or of absolute necessity.

At the ringing of the first bell in the morning, they are to turn out, dress, fasten up the cot, and have the bucket, ready for marching out. At the order, they are to throw the door open gently, to the wall, step out, and march, when ordered.

Don’t cough or stir during Divine Service

In marching into the room where Divine Service is to be performed, each Convict is to take the seat assigned him, and while there to give his entire attention to the services. All disposition to cough, as far as possible, be suppressed; and no shuffling with the feet, or movement of the body, calculated to disturb the order and quiet of the Service, be indulged in or practiced.

If two or more Convicts are passing about the yard in the same direction, they must walk in single file, and never abreast. Nor must any Convict be suffered to loiter about the yard without permission.

If unwell, and needing the advice of the Physician, they are to report to the Officer of their Department, immediately after marching in, in the morning. If sent to the Hospital, they must proceed directly to that place, and await the decision of the Physician. When ordered to the yard, for exercise and air, they must confine themselves within the limits of the yard designated for that purpose.

When wishing to speak to the Warden or to have an interview with any other Officer, the Convict is to make known his desire to his Officer, and in no case to speak to either in any place without permission of said Officer.

Behavior weighs on clemency decisions

We are directed by the Governor to say, that the record of punishments, which the Warden is required to keep, will be closely examined in all cases where applications for pardon or restoration to citizenship are made, and no one whose conduct has been bad, can expect any clemency from him.