Unlocking History

Behind the Photo: Explaining Eleanor Roosevelt’s San Quentin visit

Eleanor Roosevelt walks near the photography department at San Quentin prison in 1943.
Eleanor Roosevelt visits San Quentin, 1943, escorted by Warden Clinton Duffy.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

CDCR’s photographic archive often leaves staff with more questions than answers. One such photo is that of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at San Quentin State Prison. No additional information is provided with the image. Warden Clinton Duffy is shown walking alongside the First Lady. Given her status, it didn’t take long for Inside CDCR to uncover the story behind the photo.

California prisons’ war efforts highlight First Lady’s visit

The longest serving president in American history was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected to four terms. He served as president from 1933 until 1945, when he passed away while in office.

To get a clearer idea of her visit to the prison, context is important. America entered World War II after the bombing at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As such, the country shifted its focus to the war effort. Seeing a need, incarcerated men and women, as well as staff, stepped forward to volunteer their skills. San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy was appointed as a consultant to the War Production Board on behalf of prison industries.

In 1943, with the war effort in full swing, the men and women serving time in California prisons assisted as best they could given their situation. They purchased war bonds, made U.S. flags, and crafted cargo and anti-submarine nets.

To show appreciation for all their efforts, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited San Quentin. She just so happened to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to promote war bonds.

“Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt will be the guest of Warden and Mrs. Clinton T. Duffy when the First Lady makes a tour of San Quentin prison to view the war efforts being made there. Warden Duffy and Mrs. Roosevelt have conferred in Washington several times when the warden has made trips to the capitol in connection with his recent appointment as consultant to the War Production Board,” reported the San Anselmo Herald, April 8, 1943. “A half holiday will be declared for the inmates, the warden says, and (3,000) men will gather in the main auditorium to hear a brief message from Mrs. Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt expressed appreciation on behalf of the president.

“You are doing a magnificent job of war work. The president is going to be proud of the work the prisoners are doing for this war. I know he will be proud of the way you do it,” she said, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The AP report went on to describe Roosevelt’s tour of the areas devoted to war work, taking “keen interest in the cargo nets being manufactured; in the cargo slings being made from salvaged materials (and) in the cafeteria trays supplied to war camp mess halls. Various groups of prisoners stood in the prison yards and to each group Mrs. Roosevelt smiled and waved.”

Johnny White represented the incarcerated population when he spoke to the crowd over the prison’s public address system.

“Only in America would such a high person enter San Quentin prison and talk to a group of inmates,” he said. “It is for such an America that inmates of San Quentin prison have purchased $130,000 worth of war stamps and bonds. It is for such an America that we gladly sacrifice 75 percent of our regular commissary allotments to make those purchases.”

When producing the submarine nets, secrecy surrounded the project. Warden Duffy couldn’t disclose the exact nature of the work but when he asked for volunteers, he received four times as many workers as needed. Since there was no machine to do the work, the men hauled inch-thick steel cables to a staging area, where they spliced them together. One newspaper described it as grueling “hand-lacerating work.”

Prison war efforts

“Few institutions are more devoted to the war effort than California’s prisons,” wrote the Wilmington Daily Press Journal, Oct. 25, 1944. “When the final record of achievement in production for the war, sale of war bonds, the war chest, blood bank and similar activities is completed, San Quentin, Folsom and Chino will rank with the highest.”

California Institution for Women assisted by canning food and sewing flags. California Institution for Men implemented plans for large-scale cattle operations to provide beef and milk to other state prisons, allowing the state’s farmers to focus on food production for the rest of the state.

“With food a top defense product, it is important that institutions produce much of their own in order to allow practically all food raised by the state’s farmers to be marketed,” said Kenyon Scudder, CIM superintendent, San Bernardino County Sun, Feb. 22, 1942.

Tradition continues

The tradition of helping the community continues to this day as incarcerated men and women take up charitable causes and natural disaster relief efforts. The incarcerated population have helped save homes from devastating wildfires, raised money for Special Olympics, walked to fight cancer and donated to replenish food bank shelves. During the pandemic, they have also made masks.