Unlocking History

Revisiting spirit of prison Christmases past

San Quentin social hall in 1919 shows flags and garland.
San Quentin's "social hall" is decorated in 1919 with garland and flags. During World War I, there was an effort to link patriotism to the holidays. (Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library)

California prisons mark holidays as part of rehabilitation

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Connecting through shared experiences, especially holidays, is seen as part of the rehabilitation process. Since the early years at California’s prisons, staff have worked with the incarcerated population to observe these special occasions with food, music and events.

For example, during World War I, a nationwide effort was made to link patriotism with the holidays. Greeting cards included flags and soldiers. San Quentin also did its part, festooning some areas with flags and Christmas decorations.

Holidays observed with meals, events

In 1908, a special Christmas dinner was offered at San Quentin.

“The chef couldn’t find enough turkeys so instead luscious roast pork with apple sauce amendments was the (main dish). On the menu was clam chowder, gravy, mashed potatoes and cake. The whole dinner was topped off with mince pie,” reported the San Francisco Call, Dec. 26, 1908.

After dinner, the prison band performed and yard privileges were granted to many.

“Folsom (prison was brighter) when Christmas day was celebrated (with) a special dinner, athletic games and a motion picture performance,” reported the Sacramento Union, Dec. 26, 1914.

On Christmas day 1914, Warden J.J. Smith ordered all striped prison clothes to be discarded. They were traded in for “a brand new suit of blue-gray cadet clothes, similar to those worn at San Quentin, and made by convicts at that penitentiary,” the newspaper reported.

A second set of suits were already “being made at San Quentin so that the hated stripes will not have to be worn even when the new suits are sent out to be laundered.”

Christmas breakfast at Folsom

Christmas breakfast consisted of pork with brown gravy, sweet potatoes, hot rolls, cheese, coffee, sugar and milk. After the meal, the mess hall was “turned into a theater (showing) a production of Rex Beach’s novel, ‘The Spoilers,’ on the motion picture canvas. The men watched (the) stirring picture with interest and were later entertained with a motion picture comedy.”

Then they took to the recreation yard for “field sports, followed by a tug-of-war and baseball game. The Christmas dinner proper was held at 2:30 o’clock.”

Dinner was roast pork, baked sweet potatoes, dressing, brown gravy, pickles, apple pie, Jenny Lind pastries, wine cakes, plum jelly, candy and raisins.

Rehabilitation through sports and art

Overview photograph of 5,500 men in a large room to watch a performance.
San Quentin put on a 1935 New Year’s show for 5,500 incarcerated people. (Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library)

Early 1900s reports shed light on the talents of those incarcerated in the state’s only two prisons.

On New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July, San Quentin’s incarcerated vaudeville and theatrical companies offered shows. The companies rehearsed throughout the year, getting help from outside entertainment professionals who were brought in to speak. According to the report, athletes played baseball year-round, often inviting outside teams to compete.

At Folsom Prison, “music, baseball, athletics and other field sports, with semiannual indoor entertainments, furnish wholesome recreation and entertainment for the (incarcerated population),” a 1913 Prison Board report states. “The vaudeville and minstrel performances given every six months by the prisoners themselves, (but) kept within proper limits by the warden, relieve the monotony of prison life (and) bring needed cheer.”

Folsom Prison Warden James A. Johnston wrote about holiday events in his 1912 Board of Prison Directors report.

On Thanksgiving they “had baseball, running, music and dancing. The behavior of the men was exemplary. For Christmas, we are planning a minstrel performance,” he wrote. According to Johnston, these activities encouraged the incarcerated population to continue their rehabilitative efforts.

Johnston later went on to head San Quentin, where he implemented many of the same changes. (Learn more about the warden in 1914.)

Holiday spirit at CIM

Kenyon Scudder, superintendent at California Institution for Men, wrote about the holiday spirit in his 1952 book, “Prisoners are People.”

“One Christmas eve, just as we were finishing our dinner at home on the grounds, we were lingering at the table,” Scudder wrote. “Soft music was coming from outside. … On our terrace, was the men’s choir.”

Scudder said they were “greatly moved” as they watched the choir meander through the grounds before ended at the dormitories. Performing during Easter and Mother’s Day, the choir was a regular fixture of early 1950s CIM.

New Year’s Day a special time

In 1915, each person incarcerated at San Quentin was “given a calendar for the new year. This was made possible by the generosity of publishing, art and book firms in San Francisco,” according to the report of the Board of State Prison Directors, July 1, 1916.

In 1935, a unique photograph shows incarcerated men gathered at San Quentin to watch a performance on New Year’s Day.

“Picture taken during the Annual New Year’s Vaudeville show at San Quentin on January 1st, 1935, when 5,500 prisoners gathered in the large Mess Hall to attend the show. This is an unusually good picture and I believe you will be interested in seeing it,” wrote Warden James B. Holohan.

The photograph is part of the collection in the Anne T. Kent California Room at the Marin County Free Library.

Barefoot Burglar pens Christmas poem

In 1909, convicted burglar James G. Fleenor‘s Christmas poem made its way to the desk of California Gov. James Gillett. Fleenor was known as the Barefoot Burglar because he would take off his shoes while burglarizing homes.

“Fleenor is serving 15 years for burglary committed in Los Angeles County. He was sent to San Quentin in May 1907. Previous to his last offense he served three years in the Nebraska State Prison,” reported the Sacramento Union, Dec. 29, 1909.

His time in San Quentin had him thinking of home during Christmas.

A Christmas poem to Governor Gillett

‘Tis Christmas at ‘home,’ round the fireside bright,
Many hearts are happy glad;
But to those whom life is a show of ‘night,’
Many hearts are lonesome and sad.
There’s a lack of joy and peace inside,
Love hungers; neglected and all alone,
Hope battle bravely against the tide,

While the soul ‘neath its burden doth groan.

The weight of sorrow, repentance and pain,
And the constant thought of the future years —
Decreeing that misery must continue the same,
Press out a vintage of bitter tears.
And yet, I would pause a moment to say —
‘Good will unto all; I wish you well,
‘May the chime with her sweet-flowing melody —
Ring on! — She’s a grand old bell!’

May your Christmas pleasure be none the less
While in Freedom you gaze at the smiling stars,
Should you pause to lighten the weight of distress,
That o’er burdens a heart behind prison bars —
May you let mercy’s bounty change by despair
Like a rift in the cloud of darkened night?
May I get that you answer a Christmas prayer —
and fill my heart with humble delight?”

Lean more about CDCR’s history and how the prisons marked Thanksgiving.