By Molly Kittle
San Quentin currently holds over 4,000 men, but the prison held both women and men from 1856 until 1933. The prison was ahead of its time in having a dedicated Women’s Department, also known as the Women’s Ward. The female prisoners, including a 13-year- old girl, were housed in the old San Quentin hospital building. A state hearing document recorded that guards shared women’s quarters and operated a bar on the prison grounds. There was at least one case of a woman becoming pregnant.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that New York State began separating women from men, in order to avoid common issues of a mixed population, such as sexual abuse. SQ was privately operated until the state took over the prison on June 1, 1855. This is when prisoners built a wall around the prison using prison-made bricks. Although SQ is a male- only facility today, women continue to have an impact on the institution; they serve critical roles in administration, as Correctional Officers (COs), in the upper ranks of leader- ship and as volunteers.
In the seven and a half decades when women were held at SQ, the United States experienced dramatic change. From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, from the Civil War to World War I, from Abolition to Prohibition, our nation’s history provides context and a deeper understanding of the women who were incarcerated at SQ. Why did some women find themselves behind bars while those on the outside experienced new freedoms? This era included women winning the right to vote, serve in the military and hold elected office.
Then and now, social, financial, racial, safety (trauma/abuse) and mental health
factors play a role in incarceration. Abuse and financial dependence stand out in reports
as reminders of a woman’s place at the time. In the law rosters are infractions such as
bigamy, abortion, forgery, embezzlement, violating the Harrison Act of 1914 (an early
anti-drug law that sought to combat opium addiction through licensing and taxation) and more serious crimes, including murder.
• 1885 – Prison matron position cre- ated to supervise 15 female pris- oners, paid $50 per month plus board.
• 1888 – Prisoner Mary Von almost • kills Matron Mary Kane.
• 1909-14 – Genevieve Smith is matron, earning $840 per month. Her husband Richard was a guard, • earning $780.
1887 – Fatally shoots her lover and admits shooting another man two years earlier.
1888 – Attacks prison matron, nearly killing her.
- 1890 – Described as ‘holy terror’ by press.
- 1911 – Paroles after 25 years.
- 1912 – Falls ill and returns to San Quentin for medical care.
- 1913 – Dies at SQ at age 72.
• First woman sentenced to death in the state. She was granted a new trial on appeal, changed her plea to guilty in exchange for a life sentence in 1910.
• 1920 – Earned parole.
• 1921 – Broke conditions of parole and readmitted to San Quentin. • 1925 – Earned parole.
• 1931 – Broke parole conditions, back in SQ.
1933 – Transferred to newly opened CIW.
• 1941 – Died at 69, of ovarian cancer, still incarcerated at CIW.