By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Historical photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series exploring the history of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)

San Quentin State Prison can trace its roots back to California’s infancy, when the Gold Rush drew down-on-their-luck fortune seekers as well as those with more nefarious plans.

San Francisco, as a frontier town and port of entry for those heading to the gold fields in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, was thick with treasure hunters in addition to thieves, scoundrels and crooks. The city’s jail was flimsy and escapes were common.

Seeing a need for something more secure, city leaders set their sights on what they had in abundance – water and empty ships.

In 1849, they purchased the Euphemia for $3,500 and turned the vessel into a floating prison ship. By 1850, the ship began housing prisoners.

Enter the state

In 1851, the State Legislature passed the Criminal Practices Act, authorizing six counties to set up and operate a state prison in California. Two of these counties, Sacramento and San Francisco, used ships as county jails for the confinement of prisoners.

Various sources indicate the first prison ship for the state was the Waban, a 268-ton vessel built in a Boston shipyard and abandoned by its crew in San Francisco Bay. Like many empty ships in the bay, the crew had fled for the gold fields in the foothills.

A June 12, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript newspaper logged ships coming into the Port of San Francisco. “June 9th … bark Waban, Severin, 200 days from New York.”

This artist's rendering is believed to depict the Waban.

This artist’s rendering is believed to depict the Waban.

The ship was reportedly acquired by San Francisco County Sheriff Jack Hays and was contracted with the State of California to be operated as the first state prison ship.

The Dec. 20, 1851, edition of the Daily Alta California chronicles the ship’s first foray as a prison vessel.
“The bark Waban, with about forty state prisoners, was towed over to Angel Island yesterday by the steam tug Fire Fly, Capt. Grifflin. We learn the prisoners are intended to work in the stone quarry, under the direction and supervision of our efficient Sheriff, Jack Hays,” the newspaper reported at the time.

Hays had the ship anchored off Angel Island but repeated escapes and insurrection forced the cancellation of his contract. Two other men, General James Estell and General Mariano Vallejo, took over the contract and the Waban.

The first order of business was moving the ship. They quickly settled on a location off Point San Quentin in Marin County.

The state opted for a permanent prison, rather than a ship, and in 1852, the state purchased 20 acres of land at San Quentin for $10,000. Later, Estell became the sole owner of the contract.

As folklore has it, the Waban arrived on July 14, 1852, (Bastille Day) with 40 to 50 convicts. On Oct. 12, 1852, a “contract was let for the first cell building,” according to reports. The building was completed in 1854. Inmates slept on the ship at night and worked to construct the prison during the day.

The practice of awarding contracts to individuals to run prisons wasn’t new. The method was common in the Midwest and South. In 1825, Kentucky prison authorities used the method in developing their prison at Frankfurt. The same system was also used in Missouri, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana, according to an article published in the March 1987 issue of “California History” magazine.

Prison ownership

Originally, the prison was contracted out to private individuals to run and maintain. James Estell, not seeing much profit in the venture, opted out, turning over his contract to John F. McCauley in 1857.

According to reports, McCauley ignored prison inspectors, used harsh methods of punishment and kept prisoners barefoot and half-clothed.

When word of the conditions reached the State Legislature, “they declared the lease (with McCauley) null and void and advised the state to take immediate charge.”

On May 1, 1858, Gov. John B. Weller took over the prison “by force,” according to reports.

The first state warden

The importance of San Quentin meant someone of high rank should be in charge, which is why the first several wardens also happened to be the state’s Lieutenant Governors. In 1858, the Warden was Lt. Gov. Joseph Walkup.

Lt. Gov. Josheph Walkup was appointed Warden of San Quentin in 1858.

Lt. Gov. Joseph Walkup was appointed Warden of San Quentin in 1858.

Lt. Gov. Walkup (born in 1819, died in 1873) arrived in California in 1849 and served in the State Senate from 1852 until 1857, when he was elected Lieutenant Governor. Walkup served two years. In 1862, he settled in Auburn.

In 1868, he assumed the helm of the Placer Herald newspaper, serving as editor and proprietor. According to the Placer Argus newspaper, “at the hour of his death (in 1873, he) was in the active discharge of the duties of that position.”

More Lt. Governors follow

McCauley sued the State and the Governor for restitution of “forcibly seized” property. A judge ordered the immediate return of the prison to McCauley as well as $12,299 and court costs against Gov. Weller. On April 14, 1860, McCauley returned to the prison by chartered ferry boat complete with a brass band.

For the next several months, McCauley allowed no member of the State Prison Board to meddle in the affairs of San Quentin.

There wasn’t another Lieutenant Governor as Warden for several months.

“On April 30, 1860, (the) State offered McCauley $275,000 as settlement for all claims and judgments and to turn the prison back to the State,” according to historical documents. “After a delay to finish up some profitable contracts, McCauley accepted the State’s offer on Aug. 11, 1860, but kept charge for two months more. This ended the period of lessees and from then on, control has been with the State.”

On Oct. 11, 1860, acting Lt. Gov. Isaac N. Quinn was appointed Warden but was out of the position by Jan. 5, 1861.

Inmate housing is shown in this undated photo.

Inmate housing is shown in this undated photo.

While not all the Wardens were Lieutenant Governors, in the early years of State ownership, most were.

  • Acting Lieutenant Governor Pablo de la Guerra was appointed Warden on Jan. 5, 1861.
  • Lt. Gov. John F. Chellis was appointed Warden in 1862.
  • Lt. Gov. Romualdo Pacheco was appointed Warden in 1871.
  • Acting Lt. Gov. William Irwin was appointed Warden in 1873.
  • Lt. Gov. James Johnson was appointed Warden in 1875.

J.P. Ames was appointed Warden on March 1, 1880, breaking a long trend as he was not a Lieutenant Governor but he mentioned the State’s second-in-command. He observed, “(the prison’s) chief importance is derived from the fact of its being the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of the State, who ex-officio has charge of the State’s convicts.”

Some references are made to Ames being the “first official Warden” of San Quentin, most likely because he was not a politician and serving as the prison’s Warden was his sole duty.

San Quentin, circa 1900.

San Quentin, circa 1900.

Facts and figures

  • The Waban prison ship was the subject of an 1853 inspection and it did not receive high marks. “Food was plentiful and of good quality, but living conditions aboard the prison ship were very bad,” the report states. “As the prisoners wore no distinguishing clothes and on account of the open nature of the work, there were many escapes.” The report also noted the lack of medical care.
  • Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro was hired as the first prison doctor, serving from 1853 to 1863.
  • First prison school with 250 students begins in 1868 run by historian/morals instructor.
  • In 1875, the Warden was paid $10 per day. The Captain of the Yard and Captain of the Guard were paid $150 each per month while 55 guards were paid $50 each per month. One guard, acting as Flogger, was paid $75 per month. One guard, acting as Receiver of Freight, was paid $65 per month. The physician was paid $125 per month. On June 30, 1875, the prison population was 1,088.


Historical timeline

  • 1851: State Legislature passed Criminal Practices Act, authorizing six counties to set up and operate a state prison in California.
  • 1852: Waban, a state-contracted prison ship, sailed to Point San Quentin. State purchased 20 acres of land for construction of a permanent prison. Construction of first cell block began, using inmate labor. The inmates slept on the ship at night and worked during the day.
  • 1853: The warden’s residence, originally constructed at a cost of $14,453.75, became known as the Lieutenant Governor’s residence.
  • 1854: First cell building constructed.
  • 1857: General James Estell, contract-holder with the State to run San Quentin, turned over the business to John F. McCauley.
  • 1858: The Legislature declared the contract with McCauley null and void and advised the State to take immediate charge. On May 1, Gov. John B. Weller took over the prison “by force,” according to reports.
  • 1859: McCauley won a lawsuit against the State and the Governor. The State was ordered to return the prison to McCauley.
  • 1860: State settled with McCauley for $275,000 to return the prison to the State.
  • 1882: Jute Mill Constructed in 1882 at a cost of $69,086.02.
  • 1904: The youngest prisoner received was Claude F. Hawkins (20863) from Yuba County. He was 14 and sentenced to serve 16 years for murder in the second degree.
  • 1913: Warden John Hoyle, who was appointed in 1907, abolished the use of striped uniforms.
  • 1915: Stables with reinforced concrete and a frame roof are constructed.
  • 1920: Inmate James “Bluebeard” Watson (33755) arrived. He confessed to killing seven of his 22 wives. He died in San Quentin in 1935 and is buried at the prison cemetery.
  • 1933: The last of the San Quentin female prisoners were transferred to Tehachapi. In 1937, the Women’s Department of San Quentin at Tehachapi became the California Institute for Women.
  • 1944: Senate Bill No. 1 passed, establishing the Department of Corrections. Richard A. McGee named Director of Corrections by California Gov. Earl G. Warren.
  • 1945: Guards officially became known as Correctional Officers after the Department of Corrections first set of rules and regulations was issued.
  • 1946: The Correctional Training Facility – South (then called the Soledad Barracks) began operation as a satellite of San Quentin. In 1945, the Legislature had authorized construction of a medium-security prison at the site. Also in 1946, statewide educational and vocational programs were established.
  • 1947: Soledad separated from San Quentin.
  • 1951: The Jute Mill burned. According to a newspaper report published at the time, on April 19, 1951, a fire destroyed the prison’s jute mill, causing $3 million in damage. Two inmates risked their lives to drag Guard James D. Powell to safety after he was overcome by smoke. The fire broke out when 700 of the mill’s 850 workers were returning from lunch. At the height of the fire, the flames and smoke were visible for eight miles.
  • 1956: Cotton textile mill opened in San Quentin, replacing the Jute Mill. The mill ceased production in 1969 and the equipment was sold to a private firm and moved to Peru.
  • 1959: The last of the Old Spanish Prison was demolished. It was the original prison, sometimes referred to as the “old prison.” Inmate Tony Ditardo (33707), received at San Quentin in 1920, was the last to live in the cellblock.
  • 1966: New gym construction completed on site of old Jute Mill which was destroyed by fire in 1951.
  • 1967: Woody Allen filmed part of his movie, “Take the Money and Run,” within the confines of San Quentin.
  • 1969: The dairy was closed and razed in a controlled burn.  The dairy herd had been transferred to Folsom State Prison in 1966. Cotton mill was also closed and the ice house discontinued.
  • 1971: Musician Merle Haggard performed and recorded music at the prison. Haggard was a former inmate, sentenced in 1958 and paroled on Feb. 3, 1963.
  • 1972: This year marked the beginning of female custody staff working at San Quentin. According to one of those first female Correctional Officers, Ilene Williams, “no females were placed at San Quentin until 1972.” She was the first woman to wear a uniform. Before then, women employed by the department wore normal clothing. Williams began her career with the department in 1967 and retired as a Chief Deputy Warden at California State Prison-Corcoran in 1994. The other first female Correctional Officer at San Quentin was Joyce Zink, who retired in 2000 from Folsom State Prison as a Captain. The pair were featured in the July 28, 1972 edition of San Quentin News. According to Williams, women had been assigned in 1971 but a riot delayed placement at San Quentin for a year. (Note: The first female Correctional Officer assigned to a male prison was in 1971 at California Training Facility, Soledad, according to CDCR’s “50 Years of Public Safety, Public Service” pamphlet dated 1994.)


Follow CDCR on Facebook at;
on Twitter at;
and YouTube at