Unlocking History: Visionary wardens geared prisons toward rehabilitation, part 1

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 first part in the series.

Archibald Yell, Folsom State Prison

A Sacramento County assistant district attorney was appointed warden of Folsom prison by the Board of Prison Directors in 1903.

“The appointment caused a little surprise but it was known that (Archibald) Yell was a strong candidate for the position,” stated the Press Democrat, Nov. 14, 1903. “Yell … is widely known among politicians and others throughout the Sacramento district and in San Francisco. He is regarded as a competent man for the position. There were several applicants. Yell was backed by the Superior judges of Sacramento County and a number of leading politicians.”

Archibald Yell served as warden at Folsom State Prison from 1903-08.

Initially, Yell proposed doing away with the state’s two prisons and building a new one on an island where shipping would be cheaper than rail and the difficulty of smuggling contraband would be greater.

“An island of 10 or 20 acres could be purchased with the proceeds of the sale (of San Quentin and Folsom prisons) and the state could proceed to the erection of suitable modern prison buildings at much less cost than remodeling, adding to or rebuilding at the present sites,” Yell recommended in 1904, suggesting the new prison could be located on an inland 10 or 20 miles off the coast. His proposal never took root but a federal prison – Alcatraz – was built on an island a few decades later.

Electricity was new and water scarce but a dam adjacent to Folsom Prison could solve those problems.

“Warden Yell today confirmed the report that he has taken possession of the head gate of the dam on the American River above the state prison here,” reported the San Francisco Call on Sept. 21, 1905.

Warden Yell didn’t mince words regarding his reasons for taking swift action, essentially restoring the dam to the prison’s control.

“I am sick and tired of begging a corporation for water which belongs to the state and I think the director felt the same way,” he told the newspaper. “We have taken charge of the head gate now. … I am not ready now to say whether I will put guards up there or not. I do not know what legal steps the Sacramento Electric, Gas and Railway Company will take to regain possession, but I know that for the present they will have to take what water we can spare them. It has been a humiliating experience for a state institution of this character to be obliged to beg a corporation for water and power and take only what they are pleased to let us have. … The prison authorities control the water now by hydraulic pressure from the prison power-house, where hydraulic pumps were originally placed for that purpose.”

On April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake devastated the city, killing roughly 3,000 people. Warden Yell and the inmates were quick to respond with help.

“This afternoon a carload of flour will arrive (at the prison) from the Sacramento Relief Committee and tonight it will be baked into bread to be sent to San Francisco tomorrow morning. This will be repeated every day as long as necessary,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 22, 1906. “Warden Yell went among the convicts and picked certain ones of them to do the extra work. … (The) prisoners … seem anxious to do all they can to help the suffering people.”

He also urged the development of more job training opportunities for the inmates.

“The warden thinks that the prisoners should have (more diverse) work so that they can put their time in at a profit to themselves and the state as well,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 20, 1906.

Under Yell’s watch, work began on the prison wall.

“For years Folsom has been noted because of the fact that it is the only large prison in the world, except island prisons, that has no walls surrounding it,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 25, 1907. “With the completion of the present work, however, the institution will lose this distinction. The construction of the wall is a very large undertaking, as it will be over a mile in length, and will require several years to complete it. Very satisfactory progress has been made, however, during the short time since the work started. The granite for the wall is being taken from the prison quarries.”

A Utah prison warden visited Folsom prison for several days to study Yell’s methods.

“Warden Yell is a very capable prison official and is deserving of much credit for the manner in which the institution is conducted. From what I know of condition at the prison prior to his incumbency, I believe that the prison directors were fortunate in securing the services of Mr. Yell at the time they did. He certainly has great executive ability,” visiting Warden Pratt told the Union.

In February 1908, Yell retired.

“To show their appreciation of him, the guards recently presented him with a fine gold watch and chain,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 5, 1907. “The presentation speech was made by Guard Robert Merrill. Warden Yell lately received notification that he had been elected vice president of the American Association of Prison Wardens.”

Yell was a state assemblyman, state senator and later was the city attorney for Sacramento.

His 1921 obituary sheds some light on his long career.

“When Yell came to California at the age of 17 years, he immediately began the study of law, and later became district attorney of Mendocino County. Subsequently, he was elected to the Assembly from that district and on making an enviable record in that department of the legislature, was elected state senator,” reported the Sacramento Union, Nov. 19, 1921. “After completing his term in the legislature, Yell moved to Sacramento. … At one time, Yell was made warden of Folsom penitentiary, and in that position won new laurels for himself.

“Yell … was regarded an authority on municipal law, and ably represented this city at state conventions of municipal officials while city attorney,” the paper reported. “His opinions were highly regarded and were frequently used in other communities. He possess undaunted courage, as was evidenced when he quelled a prison break at Folsom shortly after being appointed warden there in 1904.”

John E. Hoyle, San Quentin State Prison

Warden Hoyle came on the scene after much turmoil at the state prison. He was appointed in 1907 and served until 1913. He was dubbed the “reform warden” by the press.

In 1908, he traveled to the east coast to learn about rehabilitative efforts of their larger prisons.

After he was in his post for a year, inmates presented the warden with a letter of gratitude.

John Hoyle was San Quentin’s warden from 1907-13.

“Warden Hoyle … was presented with a carefully written set of resolutions from the prisoners under his care, thanking him for his kind treatment and the interest he has taken in them,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 17, 1908. “So far as is known … this is the first time that anything of the kind has been done by prisoners in the state prisons of California. … (The document) is signed by five prisoners who were appointed a committee by their fellows. The resolution is said to be the outcome of new methods employed by Hoyle when he entered the prison.”

He didn’t come from a prison background.

“He was a newspaper publisher in the northern part of California,” reported the San Francisco Call, Nov. 3, 1913. “Among his reforms at San Quentin were: Classification of prisoners, school for teacher the convicts trades. He made a clean, healthy prison (after reports of unsanitary conditions) and gave the convicts better clothing and more substantial food.”

He was also a former U.S. post master, “commissioned” in 1905, according to San Francisco Call. He had been serving as clerk at San Quentin for a little more than a year when he was appointed warden.

After his success in San Quentin, the paper reported other states attempted to recruit Hoyle to run their prison systems. “Many states, and even the federal government, sought his services. His reason for declining was that he received an increase of salary from the California legislature and was allowed to carry out more liberal reforms.”

William Day, chaplain at San Quentin, praised Hoyle and his reforms.

“He spoke at length upon the reforms instituted by Warden Hoyle to make the lives of the prisoners less irksome and difficult, and paid high tribute to the prison executive,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 29, 1912.

His reforms caused him to butt heads with the president of the board of prison directors. Hoyle’s resignation made front-page headlines.

“Prison band plays farewell serenade for Hoyle and wife,” declared the San Francisco Call on Nov. 12, 1913. “When retired Warden John E. Hoyle and Mrs. Hoyle were about to depart from San Quentin last night to make their residence in San Francisco, the prison band of 35 musicians serenaded them while guards and prisoners alike stood with heads uncovered (removing their hats to show respect). The ceremony came as a surprise to Mr. and Mrs. Hoyle, who knew nothing of the intention of the prisoners to give them a testimonial.”

One of his last acts as warden was to do away with striped prison uniforms.

“Impending resignations and other matters calculated to put any institution in a flurry did not mar the joy at San Quentin, where 1,000 convicts laid away their striped clothing and donned the natty blue-gray uniforms devised for them by Warden John E. Hoyle,” reported the Mariposa Gazette, Nov. 15, 1913. “The passing of the stripes was a momentous occasion at the prison. Under the new rules formulated by Warden Hoyle, the only striped clothing in the prison will be worn by prisoners who make a practice of violating the prison rules.”

His death also made front page news nearly 20 years later.

“Former prison warden dead,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, Dec. 12, 1932. “John E. Hoyle, former warden of San Quentin prison and widely known in political circles throughout the state, died late yesterday in the Bayshore hospital from a complication of diseases. He was 58 years old.”

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5 Responses

  1. M. D. Williams Friday, May 12, 2017 / 6:57 pm

    Rehabilitation and Corrections go hand in hand. Amen.

  2. Gloria Hultz Friday, May 12, 2017 / 12:41 pm

    I love reading about our history. I am the Executive Director of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents and we like like to put this in our Newsletter, The Grapevine. Please let me know if that is possible.

    • Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor Friday, May 12, 2017 / 1:58 pm

      Thanks for reading. I sent you an email regarding your request.

  3. Shannon Swain Thursday, May 11, 2017 / 2:13 pm

    I always appreciate learning the history of CDCR. It is enlightening to know that Rehabilitation efforts have long been a priority for California’s institutions.

  4. Mary Laroche Thursday, May 11, 2017 / 12:17 pm

    What a great piece of history. Being a proud Californian, these type of stories, showing our background that lead the charge for human rights in our prisions is so amazing. Over 100 years ago we set a standard and it lives today. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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