Road Camps

During the early 20th century, prisoners in California worked in different forms of labor to benefit the state economy and as a method of rehabilitation through work.  Prison road camps, in particular, became an alternative source for convict labor more appealing than dangerous, less rewarding jobs within prisons.  Road work provided rewarding wage labor and a more comfortable lifestyle to the prisoners, and was promoted as a path to reintegrating with society by instilling a work ethic and personal responsibility into convicts.  The state benefitted at the same time, using the road camps to develop highways to expand the state economy while saving money.  Pressure to reduce the use of convict labor in the Great Depression led to the decline of the camp system, disregarding their role in the economy and in rehabilitating prisoners.

Road work emerged as a new form of convict labor in California in order to benefit the state and save money. Wardens of San Quentin and Folsom prisons had experimented with utilizing convict labor to crush granite and construct roads, mirroring a similar program in Oregon that employed convicts to construct roads throughout the state.  At the same time, there were growing concerns with the conditions of jute mills in prisons like San Quentin that had been the primary form of labor available to prisoners at the time.  A 1911 report on the jute mill at San Quentin found that "the air (in the mill) is charged with fine particles of dust, fatal to the weak-lunged,” a concern that was confirmed by a later report that found 20 cases of tuberculosis among San Quentin inmates attributed to the mills.[1] The alternative offered by the road camps operated by the warden of San Quentin in 1913 offered work outdoors on roads adjacent to the prison.  Prisoners were kept there on an honor system, trusting they would not escape despite the absence of armed guards because of the healthier working conditions compared to the jute mill.[2]

Where convicts saw an opportunity for safer work, state lawmakers saw an opportunity to benefit and expand their state’s economy. The state legislature pursued this goal by authorizing state road camps under the supervision of the Division of Highways in 1915.  Despite the appeal of using convict labor this way to try to expand roads at lower costs, the early road camps were not without problems.  Convicts reportedly wasted materials and worked inefficiently, due to the lack of reward for their service.  In order to provide incentive for working hard, the state legislature amended the law on road camps in 1923, providing a maximum daily wage of $2.50 to prisoners.[3] This did not mean, however, that convicts were allowed to keep all of their wages. Indeed, the 1923 law allowed the California Highway Commission (which was charged with hiring and paying convict workers) to deduct from these wages prisoners’ expenses and operating costs of the camps, and to limit the amount prisoners could save from their daily pay. A Los Angeles Times report on the conditions of the Kern River Canyon camp (twenty miles east of Bakersfield) found that, from the $2.10 daily wage the camp gave to its convicts, the commission deducted the costs of maintaining their guards and expenses incurred for recapturing escaped convicts.[4]  A 1932 report by the Division of Highways found that the prisoners saved, on average, about twenty seven cents per working day since 1923.[5] This left prisoners with less money to purchase goods from the commissary or to save for their lives after prison.  Interestingly, any debt prisoners accumulated was used as grounds for punishment.  If convicts failed to save enough to pay for prison administration, tools, and other materials, they could be sent back to prison without their good time credits or lose parole.  By tying prisoners’ monetary interests and chances of early release to the efficiency of the camps, officials sought not just to make the road camps self-sustainable, but to make prisoners responsible through “honest labor and its fruits”.[6]  This disciplining against accumulating debt thus became part of prisoners’ rehabilitation into fiscally-responsible consumers, as well as workers. .

Prisoners enjoyed other benefits in the road camps besides wages. Prison authorities, for instance, reduced one day of their sentences for every two days they worked.  Combined with “good-time” credits awarded to prisoners for good behavior for road work, work credits helped convicts earn early release.[7] Moreover, the road camps offered a greater degree of freedom to convicts than confinement within San Quentin and Folsom.  This was evident in the lesser amount of security and surveillance in the camps. The camp at Kern River County, for example, only had five armed guards. One guard, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, remarked that, if even three prisoners tried to escape to the surrounding mountainous terrain, “the guards would have little chance of catching them.”[8] Camps were operated with little discipline, requiring prisoners only to report to guards or supervisors for mealtime and before going to sleep. This leniency may have reflected good behavior on the part of the convict laborers.  Since the implementation of payments to the prisoners in 1923, reports of fights and thefts between camp workers had steeply declined. The Los Angeles Times argued that this was due to the fact that prisoners knew that failing to meet their obligations or misbehaving would cost them parole and early release. They would then be returned to prison.[9]  The road camps also offered a relatively comfortable lifestyle that convicts did not have in prison. Camps like the one in Kern County, for instance, offered comforts like radios, bathing facilities, and libraries. As prisoners worked and relaxed in the outdoors, outside the constraints of prison, they could also socialize with one another. This, along with the minimal security in the camps, undoubtedly provided a sense of freedom and humanization that prisoners were deprived of in prison.  

In addition, the California Division of Highways was tasked with organizing and regulating the conditions of road camps, as well as selecting convicts for this work.  The Division, for instance, required that all road camps be close to the highways in construction, have access to clean water, and be distant from railroads and residences to deter escapes.[10] Convicts were housed in eight-man bunkhouses, organized in groups adjacent to the quarters of camp personnel and guards for supervision.  The bunkhouses allowed for prisoners to be grouped by race and segregated, while making convicts responsible for the upkeep of their own quarters.  Though prisoners may have been segregated within the camps, they were primarily chosen based upon physical health and their “temperamental fitness", rather than race.  In practice, officials chose prisoners based on the recommendations of prison personnel (such as the warden), who were able to comment on their temperament and working abilities.[11]  In addition, a 1937 academic report found that the populations in San Quentin’s road camps roughly reflected the racial distribution of its prison population.[12]  This indicates that assignments to these camps were not dependent on race.  Prison officials did, however, distinguish job assignments in road work between prisoners and skilled free workers. Laws stipulated that skilled labor, such as bridge building or machine operating, was to be left to free workers, due to pressure from organized labor to not allow prisoners to take such skilled jobs.[13]  Such skilled engineers and machine operators lived with prisoners in the camps (though in separate barracks), combining their labor to lay gravel and pave many miles of the state’s highways and county roads.

The road camp system benefited the state tremendously. The promises that the convict labor would save the state money seemed vindicated by reports of its earnings. One estimate found that the state saved $500 per day by moving prisoners from the supervision of prisons into the labor camps.[14] Savings were also attributed to the prisoners’ wages, which incentivized them to work harder and use materials more efficiently.  In 1926, the Los Angeles Times estimated that convict laborers saved the California Highway Commission $127,594.[15] The savings and profit from the road camps encouraged their expansion, peaking in the 1920s when 12.6% of California prisoners worked on state highways. Groups within and outside this system pushed for further expanding the use of road camps and similar convict labor with the belief that it would combat “convict idleness” and help rehabilitate prisoners by instilling them with a work ethic and trade. A 1930 San Francisco Chronicle editorial decried the fact that a majority of prisoners were still not employed in any form of labor--be it the road camps, San Quentin’s jute mill, or the rock quarries of Folsom--as a “waste of human material.”[16] Beyond costs and revenues, the road camp system helped to significantly expand California’s highway system.  From the beginning of the camps in 1915 until 1936, convicts built more than five hundred miles of roads.  These included highways connecting remoter, rural parts of the state with urban sprawls like Los Angeles, helping to stimulate tourism, travel to and from the cities, and the timber industry.[17]

The onset of the Great Depression after 1930, however, marked the beginning of the decline of the prison road camp system. Labor unions increasingly pushed to end state investment in convict labor, viewing it as unfair competition. In response, Californian legislation reduced the employment of inmates in the road camps even when the economy rebounded during better times in the 1940s and 50s.  By 1950, only 200 inmates worked in road camps in the entire state.[18]  The diminished employment of convicts in road work clashed with the mission of rehabilitation and hard work the camps had represented. As late as 1937, a national report found that California’s road camp system had been the most effective rehabilitation program in the state’s history.[19] The report echoed the findings of a 1926 Los Angeles Times article that argued that the prison road camps had made better citizens of “men who have fallen over the moral cliff” than any other system.[20] While the California prison system would utilize convicts for smaller industrial tasks and craft making in the years to come, these programs would never substitute the meaningful work, benefits, and sense of freedom the road camps offered to prisoners in the early 20th century.  Instead, the state relapsed into the model of isolation and caging that characterized the state prisons.  In doing so, it closed off a road to prisoners’ earlier release and reintegration into society, making both goals more distant and beyond reach.



[1] Ward M Mcafee. "A History of Convict Labor in California." Southern California Quarterly. P. 28.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] John Shaw.. "Where Useful Toil Chases Prison Pallor." Los Angeles Times 26 Oct. 1924. Proquest.

[5] Ethan Blue. Doing Time in the Depression Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons. New York: New York University Press, 2012.  P. 71.

[6] Ibid, p. 74.

[7] Mcafee, p. 27.

[8] "Usefoil Toil".

[9] "Prison Road Work Lauded." Los Angeles Times 26 Dec. 1926. Proquest.

[10] HARD Work Camps Team (2007) Work Camps: Historic Context and Archaeological Research Design, 2nd Draft . Report Prepared for California Department of Transportation, Sacramento, CA. P. 84.

[11] Blue, P. 71.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mcafee, P. 28.

[14] "Prison Road Work Lauded"

[15] Ibid

[16] Mcafee, P. 28.

[17] Blue, P. 71.

[18] HARD Work Camps Team, P. 86.

[19] Mcafee, P. 29.

[20] "Prison Road Work Lauded"


Lucas Bensley