CDCR Time Capsule

1858: San Quentin’s first Rules for Convicts issued

First rules for convicts were issued by the original board of directors, shown in two sketches and a painting.
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.

To help stabilize San Quentin, Governor John Weller, Lieutenant 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.

Their efforts were the state’s first attempts to quell staff problems, escapes, attacks and scandal.

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 only edited for clarity.

Rules for Convicts begin with respect and obedience

Convicts are to be:

  • respectful and obedient to the Officers
  • industrious, and submissive to the rules and regulations of the Prison
  • and obey all orders promptly.

When about to speak to an Officer, convicts are to salute him by raising the hand to the forehead. Also, they shall exhibit no ill-temper when reprimanded by an Officer or have unnecessary conversation. They shall not enter into any collusive proceedings with an Officer or have unnecessary conversation with Convicts, or unto them. Convicts shall not speak to any person from outside the Prison. They shall not answer any questions but by permission of the Officer.

Convicts are not to look at visitors, or go out of the place of labor, without permission. They are not permitted to have any snuff or tobacco, pens, pencils, ink, or paper, without permission. Convicts shall not carry food into the yard or shops or alter their clothing, without permission of the Officer.

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

They are to be cleanly in person, clothing and cell. Convicts shall use the spit-dish when necessary and not spit on the door, 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 their 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. Convicts are 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 (toilet) bucket ready for marching out. At the order, they are to gently open the door, 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, will be suppressed. There shall be 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. Convicts shall not 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 designated yard.

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.

Rules for Convicts ends with ‘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. No one whose conduct has been bad, can expect any clemency from him.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

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