Life at San Quentin

Each of the inmates presented in this project were sentenced to serve time at San Quentin State Prison; their imprisonment must be understood through an historical narrative that provides a window into the “ Walled City” that would be come their homes for years and decades to come. We are only left to imagine what prison conditions were like for our inmates. Although majority of the inmates in this project were caged during the depression years of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, a brief history of the evolution of San Quentin is necessary for illuminating the dreadful conditions that exacerbated their imprisonment.

            The history of human caging in California is inextricably linked with the birth of the state in 1850. “Early legislators first leased its prisoners to private entrepreneurs who sold the prisoners’ labor to various businesses, including their own.”[i]  The early days of the states’ first human caging were filled with subjugation, corruption, physical abuse, and horrific conditions. “For five years after the American occupation, California seems to have worried along without any fixed penal laws or penal institutions.”[ii] Prisoners were first housed on ships; one of the little known instances is the Waban ship, which is said to have been corrupt and poorly ran according to early historians. “In April 1850, all the county jails were solemnly declared to be state prisons, and the county authorities were authorized to use prison labor on public works. By early in 1851 plans for a state prison were included in an offer made to the state legislature by a former Mexican general named Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Inmates from the ship were commissioned to build the new prison on a small peninsula called Punta de Quentin by the Californians. At first the Americans called it Point Quentin; later it became Point Saint Quentin.”[iii]  The goal was to build a prison as quick as possible to have a site to house leased convicts. The inmates labor would be used to pay for expenses associated with their caging, clothes, food, and expenses. “Every day, including Sundays and holidays, the convicts were rowed ashore where they worked from daylight until dark chopping and hauling wood or making bricks. While the prison was under construction, the convicts were kept aboard a ship at night. Since the population had tripled before the year was over, four men had to be crowded into each of the eight by eight foot cells in which no provision had been made for sanitation.”[iv] With no prior experience in penology, the first ten years of San Quentin were chaotic and lacked proper structure to function as an ethical institution of justice. “Before California’s first prison building stood ready for habitation, California legislators had thus enunciated a fundamental conflict of goals that would persist for the next one hundred years: punishment versus reformation. As a way to save money, architecture became the next debated issue that would lead to the building of the first inmate housing space. This first cellblock quickly gained the nickname, ‘The Stones’, which opened in 1854 and remained in use until 1959. The cell sizes measured nearly 6 by 9 feet, typically the size of a solitary cell. In the first decade, prison escape rates were extremely high. [v]


Work in the Walled City

The jute mill at San Quentin opened April 3, 1882. During its first year of operation the jute mill helped cut in half the $200,000, which the upkeep of San Quentin had been costing the state. Ultimately, the jute mill became the focal point for infection that erupted in mass mutinies by the prisoners and in graft corruption among the managers. Yet it never failed to show a profit.[vi] Prisoners labor, moreover allowed the institutions that held them to function. San Quentin became known as the “Walled City”; it held a city’s worth of work. “Prisoners cooked the food and served it, sowed the clothes they wore and washed it when they got dirty, swept the halls, wrote and printed the prison newspaper (one of the only prisons in the world with an inmate ran newspaper), they also built furniture, assembled shoes, wove jute sacks, and pressed licensed plates, all of these could help recoup the costs of caging so many.”[vii] The inmates presented in this project held at least one of these jobs at one time or another, especially the jute mill. Women did not receive a separate building at San Quentin until 1927. By 1929, California finally separated women from San Quentin, and established The California Institution For Women at Tehachapi.[viii]

            At the head of the prison system of California is the State Board of Prison Directors, consisting of five members. The Board of Prison Directors should be distinguished from the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles. The soul function of the latter body, created in 1931, is the fixing of sentences under California’s indeterminate sentence law

[i] Messinger, Sheldon L. "The Foundations of Parole in California." Law & Society         Review 19.1     (1985): 69-106. JSTOR. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. Pg. 70


[ii] Wilkins, James Hepburn., and Clinton T. Duffy. The Evolution of a State Prison: Historical      Narrative of the Ten Years from 1851 to 1861, during the Period When the Care and       Employment of Convicts Was Turned over to Lessess. Place of Publication Not            Identified: Publisher Not Identified, Pg. 1 Print.


[iii] Lamott, Kenneth Church. Chronicles of San Quentin; the Biography of a Prison. New York:   D. McKay, 1961. Print. Pg. 5-17


[iv] Duffy, Gladys Carpenter. Warden's Wife. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

            Pg. 12 Print.


[v] Bookspan, Shelley. A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944.              Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1991. Print. Pg. 6-7


[vi] Lamott, Kenneth Church. Chronicles of San Quentin; the Biography of a Prison. New York:   D. McKay, 1961. Print. Pg 139

[vii] Blue, Ethan. Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons.    New York: New York UP, 2012. Print. Pg. 65-66


[viii] Bookspan, Shelley. A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-         1944. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1991. Print. Pg. 80




Justin Christopher