Clinton Duffy, the son of a San Quentin guard, grew up to be warden from 1940 to 1952. Among the humane changes he instituted were the end of corporal punishment, improvement of food, start of vocational training, founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and desegregation of the dining hall. Another of his enduring “firsts” was the founding of the San Quentin News. Here is how it happened, as described by Duffy in one of the several books he wrote. The account is passed along by Lt. Rudy Luna.
One afternoon many years ago, when I was a boy growing up behind the walls of San Quentin, I sneaked up the hill behind the warden’s house to watch a big brush fire. I had been forbidden to go there because there were prisoners fighting the blaze under the nervous gaze of armed guards and also for the more practical reason that my mother was afraid I might burn my new school suit.
Toward dusk that day, when I sauntered nonchalantly through the back-yard gate, my mother met me with folded arms and an accusing eye.
INTO THE FIRE
“Clinton,” she said coldly, “you disobeyed me and went to that fire.”
“No, I didn’t, Mom,” I said. “That’s just a rumor you heard on the grapevine.”
“Oh, it’s just a rumor, is it?” she mocked. “It must be a pretty hot one, because it’s smoking. Take a look at yourself, young man.”
I took a look, and I knew I was sunk. My pants were on fire.
The moral of this quick knock out probably escaped me at the time, but it was brought back nostalgically after I was named warden. Shortly after I took office I started walking through the big yard alone two or three times a week, because I wanted to see for myself what was going on and I wanted the men to have confidence in me and to know that I didn’t intend to move around the prison trailed by three or four bodyguards.
JOTTING IT DOWN
I also got into the habit of carrying pencil and paper in my pocket–I still do it today–and if some of the men had urgent personal problems, I jotted down the information and handled the matter myself. I kept all officers, guards, and inmates advised of every change in the prison rules–and there were plenty–and tried to anticipate their questions.
Nevertheless, the grapevine throbbed with weird gossip about my plans, and if some of the rumors weren’t actually smoking, they were hot enough to cause unrest and interfere with the normal prison routine. I decided that the obvious answer, if we could swing it, would be a regular prison newspaper.
Prior to the time I became warden, San Quentin had been without such a paper. There was, in earlier years, a literary magazine called the San Quentin Bulletin, and many a prison writer first broke into print on its pages.
In some ways the Bulletin was the personal plaything of the prison intellectuals, and it gave a number of men an outlet for esoteric fiction which probably could not have been sold commercially. The publication consequently had a limited appeal, was expensive, and was finally dropped.
THE MISSING NEWS
Two other wardens, both baseball fans, had permitted the occasional printing of a small sports sheet, but it didn’t have the little items of inside news that were almost as important to the men as letters from home.
What was the new parole policy? When would the prison camps open? What could be sent from home? What about visits from their loved ones? How much tobacco was allowed?
These and a hundred similar questions were being answered by cellblock oracles who claimed to have a private line right into my office. Further, many old-timers clung stubbornly to the idea that in prison you had to whisper everything, even the time of day, and were frankly skeptical when I said that as long as I was warden there would be no more secrets in San Quentin.
WENT RIGHT AHEAD
There were also some doubters among the older employees, and when they heard about the proposed newspaper they said derisively that half the prisoners couldn’t read and the other half would fill the news column with coded messages for their pals on the outside. This was sheer twaddle, of course, and I went right ahead with the plan.
Toward the end of November, with the help of several former newspapermen who were doing time, an artist, a make-up man, and the inmate workers in the prison print shop, we were ready to publish.
“Sometimes good things can
happen after your pants catch on fire”
The first edition of the San Quentin News, hand-set and printed on gaudy green paper, was published December 10, 1940. The paper was not exactly a sensation, but it was a revelation to the permanent tenants who thought they had seen everything in prison. Those first issues were tough in spots, full of slang and even a little bawdy at times. We printed poetry, quizzes, cartoons, short stories, gags, and news.
The letters-to-the-editor column, among other things, was a safety valve for all sorts of wacky stories and jokes, and we printed a lot of curious trivia simply because it raised the spirit of the men. One of these stories, which I like to read to an outside audience occasionally, was called “The First Offender, “ – and I think is a light but effective one-minute sermon for any free man who tends to be smug because he has never been in trouble with the police. The story reads as follows:
After diligent research we have discovered that there is no such thing as a First Offender–anywhere. The explanation is quite simple:
When you were an infant in the crib you yelled and disturbed the entire household. That’s disorderly conduct.
At the age of five you stealthily made your way into the kitchen and stole some jam while your mother was occupied elsewhere. That’s petty larceny.
As a boy of ten you played hooky from school to go fishing and wrote an excuse to the teacher; signing your father’s name. That’s forgery.
Reaching manhood, you married, and at the church you promised to love and cherish. That’s perjury.
You kept quarreling with your wife until you burned her up. That’s arson.
After your divorce, you kept out of trouble until you were forty and then you married a girl of nineteen. Shame on you, cradle snatching that way. That’s kidnapping.
But the pay-off comes when you sit out in the yard and have the gall to tell your bored audience that you are here on a bum rap. That’s murder!