This is the second in a series of articles on San Quentin history.
The Rich History of California’s Oldest Prison
After California became a state, executions were carried out in individual counties, usually by hanging.
On February 14, 1872, Capital Punishment was entered into the California Penal Code.
San Quentin was chosen to be the exclusive site for execution in 1893. The first execution within the walls of San Quentin was on March 3, 1893. Hanging from the end of the rope was 60-year-old California native Jose Gabriel.
There’s no doubt San Quentin has a rich history. Most prisoners who are locked within the walls of San Quentin have no idea what has gone on here before they were born. San Quentin is not as infamous as it was in the 1800s, yet it is still a prison that is designated for executions. Sitting on Death Row are some of the state’s most dangerous criminals.
Punishment in the early years was swift. It only took three months and four days after Jose received the sentence for murder before it was carried out. The first triple execution was conducted on Oct. 3, 1893.
The chief physician would step up on a foot stool and put a stethoscope over the condemned person’s heart to let the hangmen know when the heart stopped beating. The person would not be cut down until the doctor pronounced the condemned dead. Chief Physician Dr. Leo Stanly wrote that witnessing a hanging was a hellish experience.
If the body was not claimed within 24 hours, a medical school claimed it for student study.
The first woman to hang in San Quentin was on Nov. 21, 1941. There was no more hanging in San Quentin after 1942.
The gas chamber, equipped with two chairs, was activated in 1938. A prisoner who helped build the gas chamber ended up years later being executed in it.
All those who were on the list for execution went to the gas chamber. Four women have been executed in San Quentin. The last woman to die in the gas chamber was on Aug. 8, 1962. During Warden Clinton Duffy’s term 1940-52, he witnessed executions by rope and by gas.
In recent years, executions were conducted with lethal injections. Court challenges have repeatedly delayed California executions, but they continue in a few other states.
Of the 409 people executed in San Quentin, over half were white. Not everyone executed in San Quentin committed a murder.
In this era the average prison sentence was two years; not many had over five years.
The general population wore clothing with vertical stripes; horizontal were assigned to the more dangerous convicts. Stripes were abolished in 1913 because they were considered demeaning to the prisoners.
The prison has transformed from 40 prisoners in a boat anchored on the shore San Quentin grew to be a prison holding over 6,000 inmates. The educational program has excelled to the point where those who wish to do so can get a college degree. Because of the many programs and opportunities San Quentin has to offer, the men in blue from all over California who want to become better people work hard to get here. If a prisoner feels he has been mistreated, he can file a grievance. If the grievance is found to be true, the staff will face disciplinary action.
Today prisoners are not given lashes for rules infractions but instead can lose their good time credits, moving their release date back.
Today, because of the federal courts, medical care for inmates is much better than it was in the 1890s. In the infant days of San Quentin, nothing was done about overcrowding but in 2011 the federal government ordered California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its population.
On Jan. 19, 1858, inspection teams found that 120 of 500 inmates were barefoot, food was not up to standard and cells were unsanitary and overcrowded. California Gov. Weller took the keys to San Quentin from Warden McCauley, but on May 13, 1859 they were given back to him mainly because of the support he had from the residents of Marin County, who approved the harsh treatment of inmates.
The brick industry picked back up, road gangs were put back to work and strict discipline continued as it was before the governor took over. People complained because prison laborers worked for a third of what hard working, law-abiding citizens were paid. The prisoners rebelled by trying to escape, a feat close to impossible due to the wall that was built.
STATE GETS CONTROL
In April 1860, the state gained back control of San Quentin and has kept it up to present time.
The state continued to upgrade the prison conditions. Warden Josiah Ames abolished the whipping post that had been used to whip prisoners for over 25 years.
In 1864 prisoners were given time off for good behavior. In 1868, the first school was started. It met once a week after service in the chapel.
Factories were moved inside the walls and inmates were contracted out for labor.