CDCR Time Capsule

By the numbers: History of the inmate numbering system

Five mugshots of three men and two women.
Examples of the numbering system include, clockwise from top left, Adolph Weber, Charles Becker, James "Bluebeard" Watson, Emma LaDoux and Aimee Meloling (center).

A mid-1990s report penned by then-San Quentin Associate Warden Dick Nelson looks closer at the inmate identification numbering system and how it got started in California. Some who have been assigned numbers include stagecoach bandits Black Bart, Rattlesnake Dick and Charley Dorsey. Inside CDCR revisits Nelson’s report to put the number system into context.

The first inmate number assigned

California prison ship Waban at point San Quentin at Corte Madera. The drawing shows people working on the shore.
The Waban housed inmates before San Quentin was constructed. Female inmates were also kept aboard the ship.

In January 1851, Charles Currier of Sacramento was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to two years in state prison. In early 1851, Currier was received on board the Sacramento County jail ship La Grange. At the time, county jails served as state prisons. When the first state prison ship, the Waban, was activated later in 1851, Currier had the dubious honor of being assigned as prisoner No. 00001. Those early inmates built the first cells for San Quentin State Prison.

Folsom State Prison was the next facility opened by the state in 1880. They too numbered their prisoners with a system that paralleled those used at San Quentin. In the 1890s, the notorious Whitecap murders saw four men sentenced to Folsom using sequential numbers 14482 to 14485.

Until 1936, all people sentenced to San Quentin were given sequential numbers. At San Quentin, women were kept in a separate area but given the same numbers as men, including Bessie Barclay in 1909.

In 1933, the women prisoners were moved to their own institution, known as the San Quentin Women’s Department at Tehachapi. By legislative action on December 19, 1936, it became an independent entity known as the California Institution for Women (CIW).

CIW then established their own numbering system using three digits beginning in January 1937. The four digit system began in 1947 and the five digit system was put into place in 1975. CIW housed Hazel Glab, a silent film star whose ambition led her to a life of crime.

Statewide numbering system put in place

In the early 1940s, prison officials decided that a statewide numbering system was necessary. San Quentin, Folsom and the California Institution for Men (CIM) were all using sequential numbering systems of their own. It was decided to merge the three independent systems. Thus, Folsom and CIM were assigned San Quentin numbers.

On July 1, 1944, the California Department of Corrections was established and instituted the new statewide alpha-numeric numbering system for men. The first number assigned that day was A-00000.

Some of the old prison numbers and the newer A and B numbers carried an alphabetical suffix which indicated a termer status. An A at the end of a man’s number indicated second-termer and a B denoted third-termer and so on. An X at the end of a number indicated an out-of-state commitment, serving time in California via the interstate compact agreement. These alpha suffixes were abandoned in the mid-1970s.

The numbers were referred to by their alpha letters or called A numbers. These were used until Jan. 1, 1966, at which time the state instituted the B numbers, beginning at B-00000. It should be noted that the A numbers were not fully exhausted when the state decided to start the new B numbers on the first of the year. The B numbers were exhausted at B-99999.

N numbers were assigned to new drug-sentencing programs in the early 1960s. Numbers up through N-19999 were reserved for the female commitments. N-20000 went to male commitments. The first number for a female was assigned Oct. 4, 1961. The first number for a male was assigned Sept. 28, 1961.

The C numbers were rolled out Dec. 17, 1978, but only lasted until Jan. 31, 1985. The D numbers began on Jan. 31, 1985, and were exhausted by Nov. 9, 1988. The E numbers were assigned at an increased rate beginning with E-00000.

The letters F and G were skipped so as not to be confused with E and C. The H series began June 12, 1991, and by mid-August, over 6,000 of these numbers had already been assigned.

Nelson thanked numerous people for help with research.

“A great deal of research was required to reconstruct the background and dates of the numbering system. I would like to thank several people, without whose help, time and knowledge, I could have not completed this project: George Oakley, Assistant Deputy Director, retired; Christine May, Assistant Director of Communications; Judy Metz, Chief, Correctional Case Records; Gwendolyn Glenn, Classification and Parole Representative, CIW; and Pete Murray, Chief Records Officer (retired),” he wrote.

Note: Inside CDCR editor Don Chaddock contributed to this report.

Learn more about California prison history.

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