An officer opens the gate at San Quentin so the public can enter for an art show in this screen capture from a 1963 newsreel produced by British Pathé.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Using art as a tool for rehabilitation inside prison has been around for decades with the practice’s popularity fluctuating, depending on the decade.

The British Pathé YouTube channel features three short newsreels highlighting art shows at San Quentin State Prison in the early 1960s. Newsreels typically played before the movies started, much like today’s previews. British Pathe produced newsreels from 1896 until 1976 and the company has uploaded 85,000 of their newsreels to YouTube. See their full channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe

(Editor’s note: Since YouTube may not be accessible from a CDCR computer, the videos have been transcribed below.)

The first video, from 1960, is titled “Prison walls do not hide talent in art,” and was narrated by Peter Roberts. Unfortunately, the audio was lost.

1960 (YouTube link): https://youtu.be/W_d7TRpUyik

The 1963 video, titled “Prison art shown at San Quentin,” begins with a shot of San Quentin’s exterior and a voice-over by narrator Michael Fitzmaurice.

“San Quentin prison is not far from San Francisco’s artist colonies,” says Fitzmaurice, “and perhaps some of the creative spirit penetrates its walls along with the visitors who come to its ninth annual arts and crafts show. This occasion, which is as near to an open house as a … prison could hold, attracts serious art critics as well as friends and families of the inmates. Before being displayed to the public here in the employees’ recreation room, the pictures had been given a very private preview for convict patron of the arts at the typewriter repair shop. The subjects and styles vary widely. Loneliness is often expressed as well as surprising amounts of religious themes. There is some real talent, as one would expect to find among any 4,700 men, whether behind walls or not. The pictures find willing buyers. One goes for $150. In all, the take is $1,500 but worth far more than that is the sense of creativity and recognition such a show gives potential artists who took the wrong direction.”

1963 (YouTube link): https://youtu.be/CcI539TwvNQ

Titled “San Quentin Art – Prison opens gates for annual show,” the 1964 video is 1 minute 17 seconds long.

“Art flourishes behind the bars of San Quentin Prison,” says Fitzmaurice, “perhaps a need to create within themselves a world that’s not all steel and stone. Nearly a fifth of the 5,000 prisoners have taken up art. Once a year the best works of this unlikely bohemian colony are put on display.”

The video shows inmates setting up a gallery of artwork and people filing into San Quentin.

“In the 1964 show, 87 painters, sculptors and craftsmen in leather, wood, precious metals and semi-precious stone are represented. Most however are painters. The annual art show is the one day when the public is allowed inside the gates of the California maximum security prison. The response is wide, over 9,000 – not only friends and family of the inmates – but also serious art collectors. The subjects, necessarily painted from memory or yearning, are varied. Most of them are representational as in the street scene of San Francisco, so tantalizingly near and inaccessible. Abstract painting is not neglected. In fact, it finds favor among the prospective buyers of the examples of the sense of beauty and the will to self-expressions can survive in even the most hard-bitten men.”

1964 (YouTube link): https://youtu.be/JIppS4nBIS0