…..a biographical, historical and introspective
look at our world behind the walls,
the way it is, as well as the way it was.
The newly formed Legislature of the fledgling state of California authorized the state’s first prison in 1852, and the merchant ship, Waban, was purchased by the state for the princely sum of $850. Anchored in the waters off Point Quentin, the 13-year-old wooden vessel was outfitted and remodeled to imprison up to 40 inmates in its dark, dank hold. Within months the state was to encounter its first prison overcrowding as the nightly total of inmates chained in the Waban’s hold regularly exceeded 60 men. Four men at a time typically occupied each of the Waban’s tiny 8’x 8’ cells.
San Quentin today sprawls over 432 acres of prime real estate at Point Quentin on the shores of San Francisco Bay. The average daily population of approximately 5,250 inmates is housed in a variety of accommodations from cells to dormitories. California’s Condemned Row, as well as its execution chamber, are located behind the walls at San Quentin. With an annual operating budget in excess of $ 210 million, it is the world’s most expensive prison to operate.
By January of 1853, 150 cons were packed in deplorable conditions on the tiny Waban, and the state’s first prison expansion project was undertaken. The Legislature authorized the purchase for $10,000 of 20 bay-side acres near Mission San Rafael. An additional $135,000 was set aside to build a new prison designed to hold 250 inmates. Inmate labor was to be used during the construction process. Also in 1853, the first warden’s residence, also utilizing inmate labor, was completed at a cost of $14,453.75.
State prison expansion projects are alive and booming in our state as Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a 2007 bill providing $7.9 billion to add one prison and 53,000 additional beds to the system which currently consists of 34 prisons housing approximately 153,000 male and female inmates.
By 1854, the newly constructed prison, christened Corte Madera Prison, already exceeded its designed capacity of 250 inmates. They were housed in 48 small 10’x6’ cells and one long room on the prison’s bottom floor that was designed for overflow inmates. An original cell description described them as “8’ to 9’ feet high in the center with an arched ceiling, tapering to a height of 5’ at the sides. A solid iron door featured a small slit in the center to allow the cell’s occupants their only chance to gulp fresh air or peek thru to the world outside their tiny cell.” The Waban, which had by now been towed to Marin Island in the Bay, was still used to hold the worst of the convicts, as was the island itself.
In the early days of the state’s new prison system, the average con was a 25-year-old serving about a two-year stretch behind the walls.
Today’s inmate population is aging noticeably, and the recent “tough on crime” era has resulted in legislated sentencing enhancements that have significantly lengthened the average inmate’s stay behind bars. Excluding the inmates housed on Condemned Row, the average con at San Quentin is much older, an average of 37 years old, and serving a term that is considerably longer in duration than at any time in the state’s history, approximately 48 months.
December 27, 1854 witnessed the prison system’s first major prison break when 22 cons stole a boat and fled from Marin Island. A number of the fleeing inmates were killed in the running gun battle which ensued.
Records reflect that the new Corte Madera Prison was a co-ed facility, with the women, of course, housed separately from the male inmates. In 1855, amid allegations of drunken guards, well-heeled inmates enjoying daily excursions outside the prison grounds, and charges of cohabitation between guards and female inmates, the state stepped in and took back operation of the prison from its contractor/operator.
The accepted practice of allowing inmate trustees to venture off the grounds to enjoy cocktails in nearby San Rafael was curtailed under the state’s tutelage, much to the trustee’s chagrin.
In 1858, over 500 inmates were crowded into the state’s only prison. Recognizing a need to get a handle on the overcrowding problem, the state agreed to construct a new prison in the small town of Folsom. Actual construction at Folsom was not to begin until 20 more years had passed.
DOES THIS SITUATION SOUND FAMILIAR?
In the next issue: a mass prison break of 200 inmates, the advent of striped uniforms, construction of the new prison at Folsom, and a closer look at the daily routine of a San Quentin inmate.
Also, in 1860, the first JOINT VENTURE program utilizing private contractors and inmate labor comes to San Quentin.