An inmate builds model airplanes in San Quentin as part of his rehabilitation.

An inmate builds model airplanes in San Quentin as part of his rehabilitation.

Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Video archived by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

The push for rehabilitation is nothing new in CDCR. Around 1950, it was even the subject of a short newsreel, a type of documentary film.

Shot in color, there are few clues as to the time frame, other than Warden Clinton T. Duffy was at the helm. There is also no title to the piece or credit for who filmed it.

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Duffy served as San Quentin State Prison warden from 1940 until 1952 and is credited with helping revitalize rehabilitative efforts in the state prison system.

Duffy is synonymous with San Quentin – he was born outside the prison’s gates in what was known as San Quentin village.

An inmate’s paintings line the walls of the library at San Quentin, circa 1950.

In 1929, he served as secretary to Warden Holohan. Later, he worked for the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles.

He was appointed warden in 1940 and immediately began implementing reforms, including educating the inmates and developing art programs for them.

In December 1940, he revived the prison inmate newspaper and renamed it San Quentin News.

The warden also allowed news crews, and sometimes even Hollywood, to film in the prison. The films sometime took the form of newsreels, which were often shown in movie theaters before the main feature. The narrator sometimes used humor for non-tragic subjects, such as the San Quentin film.

“Five-thousand guests constrained to the hospitality of San Quentin penitentiary California. Here Warden Clinton Duffy pioneers in prison technique all kinds of occupations and hobbies are allowed deserving inmates. Here’s an anonymous master whose mural decorations will adorn prison walls long after his life sentence has been paid in full,” the narrator proclaims . “Human skills are encouraged in self-expression bringing even to this lifer the spur of artistic aspirations – not to coddle but to conserve human values. The spacious prison library affords wall area for this artist whose finest work depicts a past he never knew and a freedom he will not know. Is it any wonder he excels in work suggesting travel and flight?”

Another inmate focused on making items a sort of plaster mixture.

“Behind these prison walls all men are privileged to develop their gifts. Vincent Lusich, who willingly identifies himself, expresses his talent through the medium of things discarded. Old newspapers and a mixture of his own compounding becomes a sort of a mash. Any disused jar or bottle will provide the mold. And then with something of a sculptor’s skill, he works the pulpy mass into the image of the thing he visualizes,” the narrator says. “Knots from any old lumber pile are first polished then placed with an artist’s eye for realism. And now for the finishing touches to a thing of use and beauty – a rustic humidor needing only a bit of paint. And there’s plenty of time for drying. Humidors and other objects designed by this craftsman provide him with many small luxuries. But according to Duffy’s theories, they do more. Remember the old saying, the devil finds mischief in idle hands.”

An inmate makes jewelry out of discarded plastic.

An inmate makes jewelry out of discarded plastic.

Another inmate made jewelry out of old plastic.

“It’s unlikely that the outside of the prison walls will ever be seen by this lifer either, whose spare time, after routine work is done, is spent with his hobby. From old toothbrushes, he snips off the handles. A chemical solution renders them pliable for the rings into which he is shaping them. Settings are mounted of the same material out of contrasting color if desired. And here’s one jewelry shop that will never be broken into or out of. And a jeweler who carries no burglar insurance, although entirely surrounded by experts,” the documentary states.

A wood-working model-building inmate crafted airplanes.

“Still another whose life is dedicated until the end to the amendment of a moment of madness. He’s fashioning a pair of wings – wings for models of airplanes. Wings – the symbol of the free. Each model is after an actual type of ship, made exactly to scale and equipped with a storage battery to simulate a takeoff which neither model nor man will make,” the documentary states. “The expression of ingenuity in models, says Duffy, makes model prisoners too. Since he introduced his principles in penology, peace has reigned among his guests whose hobbies may provide, for those who someday will leave for the outside, an unusual and profitable occupation.”

After Warden Duffy retired, his story was told in the 1954 film “Duffy of San Quentin.” The warden was played by actor Paul Kelly, who earlier served three years as an inmate in San Quentin.

An inmate paints a mural in honor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

An inmate paints a mural in honor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.