By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor, OPEC
Today’s rehabilitative efforts in the state prison system can be traced back to the early days of the department. More than a century ago, visionary wardens pushed for job training, education and family engagement so former inmates could reintegrate back into society after being released from prison. Like the definition of visionary, these leaders implemented original ideas and planned the future with “imagination or wisdom.” This series takes a closer look at some of these wardens and their contributions to shaping what would become today’s CDCR. This is the second part in the series.
James A. Johnston, Folsom Prison and San Quentin
Serving as president of the State Board of Control, Johnston was appointed the warden post at Folsom State Prison in 1912 and later took over as the warden at San Quentin, replacing John E. Hoyle and serving until 1924. Johnston had also served on the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors in 1911 and 1912. In the 1930s and ’40s, he served as the first warden of the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz.
After his appointment to the warden post at Folsom, he immediately set out to make changes.
“Moving pictures for Christmas at Folsom,” declared the headline for a story in the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 26, 1912. “Under the direction of Warden Johnston the hearts of more than 1,100 convicts were lightened by a musical program, moving pictures and extras at the afternoon meal at Folsom prison yesterday.”
Johnston also pushed for treating dental health the same as physical health for inmates.
“Upon recommendation of Warden Johnston of Folsom prison the state board of prison directors has created the position of prison dentist for the penitentiary and ordered that the new position go into effect Aug. 1,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 22, 1913. “In making his recommendation, (he) declared a dentist is of as much importance to the health of the inmates as a physician. The dentist is to be named by the warden and will receive a salary of $1,200 per year.”
In 1913, he was named as Hoyle’s replacement at San Quentin. He served as the warden until he resigned in 1924 “to engage in business,” according to news accounts of the time.
“Nine hundred (inmates) are at present taking up the extension work of the University of California. Prisoners, studying by correspondence, are required to do as much work as other prisoners,” Johnston told the Sacramento Union, Sept. 12, 1914.
He also sought to take different approaches to inmates’ health.
In 1916, Warden Johnston requested a “stockade extending into the waters of the upper San Francisco bay here in order that prisoners may have the benefit of salt water bathing,” according to the Sacramento Union on Aug. 29. “At the meeting of the board (of prison directors), the installation of hydrotherapeutic baths was ordered for prisoners with nervous disorders.”
By 1921, he had earned a reputation as an expert in rehabilitation.
“Since he entered this office he has attained an international reputation for his up-to-date methods in conducting the prison,” reported the Mill Valley Record, Dec. 31, 1921. “Among other measures, he has introduced educational plans which have attracted wide attention.”
He recognized the link between addiction and crime, often speaking on the topic to local clubs and becoming involved in an anti-drug organization.
“Steady increase in the number of narcotic addicts has marked records at San Quentin penitentiary since 1918, according to Warden Johnston, who delivered an address before the Lions Club,” reported the Sacramento Union, June 16, 1922.
According to the warden, the rate of narcotic addicts admitted to San Quentin rose from 3 percent in 1917 to 9 percent in 1921.
“Johnston, who is the head of the state association to control the narcotic drug evil, says the legislature will be asked to enact stronger laws governing the sale and distribution of narcotics,” the paper reported.
Drugs were also making their way inside the prison walls and the warden worked to stop the smuggling operation.
“Warden Johnston brought about the arrest yesterday of Sam Morlin and Mae Williams, alleged narcotic dealers, through a plan which he has been carrying out for some weeks past,” reported the Marin Journal, Aug. 25, 1921. “Morlin and the woman fell into a trap prepared by Johnston, a confidential employee and men from the Federal narcotic squad.
“Suspecting that drugs were being smuggled into the prison, Warden Johnston chose from his men one whom he deemed capable of securing the evidence. After some days, the agent was able to arrange a deal with the Williams woman involving payment of $300.
“Federal agents supplied the money, which was taken by the woman and turned over to Morlin. The arrest of the accused followed. The ‘dope’ was found on the person of Morlin’s 14-year-old son, who was placed in charge of a juvenile officer.”
In 1933, he was chosen to head the new federal prison at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
“An experienced penologist considered a pioneer in humanitarian methods of prison discipline was chosen today as ward of the United State prison on Alcatraz island, where the department of justice plans to confine its most desperate prisoners. The appointee is James A. Johnston, San Francisco, who gained a wide reputation as warden of Folsom and San Quentin state prisons.”
“We firmly adhere to the principle that men go to prison as punishment, not for punishment,” Johnston told the Desert Sun in 1937.
Imprisoned at Alcatraz during his tenure there were high-profile gangsters Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
He retired from federal service in 1948 after serving as the Alcatraz warden for 15 years.
Johnston has several book titles and published papers to his name including “Prison Life is Different (1937),” “The Prison Problem and What is Being Done to Solve it at San Quentin (1916),” and “Alcatraz Island Prison and the Men Who Live There (1949).”
He died in 1954 at 79 years old.
Josephine Jackson, California Institution for Women
For as long as there have been female inmates in the state, there have been female correctional employees to supervise them. Going back to 1852 with the prison ship the Waban, women have overseen female inmates.
Up until the 1930s, there had never been a female warden. That changed with the appointment of Josephine Jackson to head the California Institution for Women (CIW). The prison was completed in 1932 but the female inmates weren’t transferred until 1933.
Jackson had already been working for the state prison system for almost two decades, overseeing female inmates as the superintendent of the Women’s Department at San Quentin. She was often referred to as “chief matron” or “prison matron” in news reports.
The March 8, 1934, edition of the Madera Tribune sported the headline, “Woman warden for Tehachapi.”
“An iron hand tempered with a sense of fair play will guide the new administration at the Tehachapi women’s prison, Miss Josephine Jackson, California’s first woman prison warden, promised today,” the paper reported. “The iron hand will be unsheathed to clear the premises of all men and the first to feel its sweep is expected to be Miss Jackson’s predecessor, Deputy Warden U.A. Smith.”
Back then, the prison was known as the Women’s Branch of San Quentin.
“A very definite program of how to operate a prison rests in the mind of this middle-aged woman whose appointment Tuesday night by the state board of prison directors at San Quentin represented a sweeping victory for California club women. Ever since the women’s branch of San Quentin was established here, club women have clamored for her appointment and for a general ouster of male guards inside the prison. Prison directors granted them their first request, Miss Jackson will grant the second by removing all the male guards outside the wall,” the paper reported.
In 1935, longtime reporter Agness “Aggie” Underwood went inside the prison to detail life behind the walls.
“Ruler of this city surrounded by a high wire fence is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works directly under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, Warden James B. Holohan,” Underwood wrote at the time. “For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged ‘bad’ and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.”
Underwood wrote about how the women’s prison was a drastic departure from previous methods of incarcerating women.
“Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model,” she wrote.
Technically, Jackson was the second female to lead the institution. Alicia Mosgrove was selected to head the prison but resigned her post in 1932, before the first inmates arrived.
Jackson served in her role until a shakeup in 1936 saw her demoted to assistant and longtime penologist and attorney Florence Monahan was named to head the institution. Monahan didn’t last long in the job either, resigning in 1941 after successfully retaining her job following a 1939 attempt by the board to terminate her employment.
The first female warden of a men’s institution was named in 1982 with Midge Carroll as warden of California Institution for Men, nearly 50 years after Jackson made headlines with her appointment.