Even though poor choices landed people in state prisons, holiday observances such as Thanksgiving continued even during incarceration.
Prisons began observing Thanksgiving in 1868
Organized Thanksgiving events in San Quentin truly began in 1868.
“While the good people of San Francisco were preparing to enjoy Thanksgiving Day, few of them thought of (those incarcerated in) San Quentin. A year ago yesterday, several gentlemen in this city formed themselves into a committee to look after the welfare of these unfortunates,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 19, 1869. “Yesterday a party of ladies and gentlemen left on the steamer Contra Costa to be present and take part at the Thanksgiving services held at the prison.”
In 1921, Folsom State Prison observed the day with a movie, baseball game and foot races. “A nice Thanksgiving dinner of ranch roast pork and other good things was served,” reported The Folsom Telegraph, Nov. 25, 1921.
Staff were not forgotten as “an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner was prepared for the officers and guards. The feast was under the personal direction of Earl W. Blanchard.”
New board president has Thanksgiving with incarcerated population
When William Morrish was appointed head of the state prison board in 1925, he chose to spend Thanksgiving day at San Quentin. He planned to see first-hand the conditions at the prison as well as make some announcements regarding improved rehabilitation efforts, namely in education.
“A new educational system will be placed in operation in San Quentin. Prisoners there, many of whom cannot read or write, will be given opportunity to engage in studies taking them through high school. All recognized subjects taught in public grade schools will be included in the new prison school,” the newspaper reported.
“(We) will begin anew to work for the best welfare of the men and women who have been placed in our charge,” Morrish said. “We are ready to forget (past criticisms) and write our achievement on a new page of prison history.”
It was also the first time the prison allowed incarcerated females to view the annual Thanksgiving track meet. While they weren’t allowed in the yard, the 64 women were provided a vantage point on the hill near Warden Frank Smith’s residence.
“Prison routine and the gloom of a foggy Thanksgiving morning were broken by another innovation today, when prisoners were served a special breakfast of pork sausage, potatoes and gravy, bread and coffee. (This replaced) the usual bread and unsweetened mush and coffee without milk. Warden Smith was responsible for the extra privilege,” reported the Oakland Tribune, Nov. 26, 1925.
Sports a Thanksgiving tradition, even in prison
The 1925 track and field events began at 9:30 a.m., featuring the University of California track team and officials from the Pacific Athletic Association to act as referees and judges. “Nearly 1,000 visitors, all men, watched the various events which included the 50, 100, 220 and 440-yard dashes, high and broad jumps, tug-of-war, pole vault, three-legged race and several (other) contests,” the paper reported.
Back then, tobacco and pipes were not considered contraband, as shown by the list of prizes.
“Prize winning prison athletes were given pipes, tobacco, candy, safety razors, handkerchiefs, soap and neckties,” the Tribune wrote.
The meal that year was roast pork and apple sauce, mashed potatoes and brown gravy, bread, minced pie, candy, salted peanuts and apples. In all, 1,700 loaves of bread were consumed as well as $2,500 worth of roast pork.
Prisons and Thanksgiving in the 1950s
The 1954 San Quentin menu included 7,000 pounds of roast pork, 1,200 raisin pies, 1,200 pounds of cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, bread, coffee and milk and sugar. The day concluded with a concert and baseball game.
On Nov. 16, 1958, The Independent-Journal featured a story on the efforts of San Quentin’s incarcerated kitchen crew preparing a Thanksgiving feast.
“Kitchen helpers today began the herculean job of slicing meat off 190 turkeys, fare for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner at San Quentin State Prison,” reported the newspaper. “The servings are weighed out, wrapped up, and will be heated before going onto the mess trays of San Quentin’s 4,844 inmates. The roast turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce and vegetables will be polished off with mince pie for dessert.”
The men were also offered “potatoes, baked yams, peas (and) tossed salad.” According to the newspaper, the “prison’s kitchen hands had an all-day job before them” to preparing for the holiday meal.
California Institution for Women (CIW) and California Institution for Men (CIM) were shown a movie as well as provided Thanksgiving meals in 1959.
“The program at CIW will include church services Thanksgiving morning and ‘The Great Caruso’ (movie) that night. Turkey, potatoes, vegetables, salad and dessert will be served at dinner,” reported the Pomona Progress Bulletin, Nov. 19, 1959. “A turkey dinner with chicken broth and rice, potatoes, vegetables and pumpkin pie will be served at CIM. ‘The Ten Commandments’ will be shown Thanksgiving night.”
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor