Unlocking History

Inspiring Hope: Female volunteers help incarcerated

Since establishing the state prison system in the 1850s, good-hearted female volunteers stepped inside to help the incarcerated population. Without recognition or fanfare, they’ve improved the lives of countless people living in the state’s penal institutions.

Inside CDCR takes a closer look at female volunteers who donated their time, money or skills to improve public safety through rehabilitation.

New York’s first female prison leader comes to SQ

Woman sits in an office near flowers.
Katharine Davis, New York Commissioner of Corrections, volunteered to speak at San Quentin in 1915.

In 1915, San Quentin State Prison (SQ) welcomed a visit from a New York female prison official.

“For the first time in the history of the institution, the men imprisoned in the State penitentiary at San Quentin were permitted (May 9) to hear a lecture by a woman,” reported the Mill Valley Record, May 15, 1915. “Dr. Katherine B. Davis, Commissioner of Corrections of New York … lectured both to the men and the women prisoners.”

According to newspaper accounts, Davis spent most of the day studying conditions at the prison before attending a parole board meeting.

On Jan. 1, 1914, Davis made history when she was appointed to lead the New York correctional agency. California took notice. The 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition designated her “one of the three most distinguished women in America.”

While in San Francisco, Davis arranged the volunteer speaking engagement at San Quentin. Though newspapers claimed she was the first, it appears they overlooked Maud Ballington Booth.

Maud Booth visits Folsom and SQ

On March 7, 1914, Maud B. Booth, head of the Volunteers of America, spoke to those residing at Folsom State Prison. While newspapers at the time claimed it was the first time a woman had spoken there, Booth had actually visited Folsom Prison twice before. She also spoke at San Quentin in 1905.

“The Volunteer Prison League is remarkable for its far-reaching influence for moral reform. It must be remembered that this is a new field as the league not only seeks to ameliorate the present discouraging conditions at the prisons, but aims at improving the laws concerning the men in different sections of our country,” she told the San Francisco Call in 1905.

She also spoke to the incarcerated population at Folsom Prison and San Quentin in early 1905.

On Sunday, Oct. 18, 1896, she visited “the State Prison at Folsom (to) address the convicts on which occasion the prison band will furnish music,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union.

Female volunteers help those in need

During a 1915 address at Folsom Prison, Booth offered help to those in need.

“As I look into your faces this morning, the thought arises, how many of you have little ones on the outside waiting for you? If I can do anything to help those little ones, I shall only be too glad to do so,” Booth said, according to the Sacramento Union, Oct. 18, 1915. “Through the Volunteer Prison League (you) become better men, (and) turn from the old paths to realize that there is something better and grander in life than you have hitherto known.”

Booth pushed notions of rehabilitation and responsibility.

“You alone can change your lot and your condition. You can change your whole lives for the better — right here in this prison — (to) lay the foundation (for) when the time comes for you to go back into the world,” she said.

Red Cross engages San Quentin Women’s Ward

Kathleen Booth, director of volunteer services for the Red Cross, enlisted the help of 20 incarcerated women, pledging to sew four hours each week. The clothing would be donated to Europe’s war orphans.

“The women pledged to serve 200 hours of the year for the Red Cross,” reported the San Francisco Call, Aug. 22, 1921. “The work is supervised by a woman who is serving a life sentence for murder.”

When she started meeting with the women at San Quentin, only two attended. After two months, the number of attendees grew to 20.

The garments were displayed at the Red Cross Headquarters followed by two weeks at the State Fair in Sacramento.

“Then the baby blankets, sweaters, caps, dresses, nighties and skirts, made by the women prisoners at San Quentin, will be sent to some of the innocent little victims of the war,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 19, 1921.

Explore how the suffrage movement expanded correctional job opportunities for women.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

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