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 third part in the series.
James B. Holohan, San Quentin
Holohan served as San Quentin’s warden from 1927 to 1936 but he was also an elected state senator, a U.S. marshal and a sheriff.
He was elected to the state Senate in 1908 and a few years later, introduced a bill to name the “bear” flag as the official flag of the state.
“The State at present has no emblem apart from the national flag, and Holohan believes that the old-time flag of the California republic with the bear and the star should be adopted,” reported the Mariposa Gazette, Jan. 21, 1911. The governor signed the bill a few weeks later.
He started his law enforcement career as a U.S. marshal for the northern California district in 1914. He was reappointed to the position in 1918 and served until 1924.
He became sheriff of Santa Cruz County from 1925 to 1927, then he was appointed San Quentin’s warden.
Under his leadership, SQ extended the walls as well as constructed new guard towers, a visitors’ room and a fire department building. He also instituted “equal rights” for female prisoners, creating an outdoor recreational area for them. While he was a stern lawman, he was keenly aware of the need for rehabilitation through job training.
“California’s next important penal reform should be a prison farm for San Quentin,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, March 27, 1930. “Such is the belief of Warden James B. Holohan, who says the problem of providing adequate employment for the thousands of convicts at the prison could partly be solved by a state-owned farm.”
He also fostered educational opportunities for inmates.
“Great advancement has been made at San Quentin prison in the education of prisoners,” reported the Madera Tribune, Oct. 5, 1931. “By sponsoring education, the institution has led in the rehabilitation of men and women. No prison in the world has a lower percentage of men sent back, or can show so many discharged inmates who ‘go straight’. … The teaching is done by inmate instructors.”
“The prison also has the first building within the walls ever to be used solely for educational purposes,” the paper reported. “This new structure contains eight classrooms.”
According to the paper, 4,000 of the prison’s 4,500 inmates were enrolled in studies. “Recently, C.F. Adams, secretary of the navy, advised Warden Holohan that the navy had placed the San Quentin school upon its accredited list. It is the first prison school ever to achieve that honor and enables the institution to borrow considerable valuable equipment for educational purposes.”
In 1935, Warden Holohan was attacked during an escape attempt.
“Near death – Warden James B. Holohan of San Quentin penitentiary, reported dying after four desperadoes had beaten him unmercifully as they broke jail. Struck by a revolver butt, he suffered a skull fracture,” reported the Madera Tribune, Jan. 28, 1935.
“In the break, the San Quentin convicts kidnapped three members of the state board of prison terms and paroles, and Mark Noon, secretary; stole money or clothing from them and stole a state-owned automobile operated by Warden Holohan, whom they slugged,” according to the Healdsburg Tribune, Feb. 5, 1935.
After almost a decade as warden, Holohan retired.
“James B. Holohan,’Warden Jim’ to 20,000 lawbreakers in California in the last decade, turned his face and his thoughts toward less hazardous, more peaceful occupations today after climbing down gratefully from the top seat of … San Quentin prison,” reported the Madera Tribune, April 16, 1936.
Holohan told the paper his plans were to enjoy life on the family ranch but others had different plans for him. He was recruited to again seek elected office and help make a difference in the state.
“Marin friends of James B. Holohan, for a number of years Warden at San Quentin, were cheered to hear that he was elected a Senator from Santa Cruz County. He was a Senator 25 years ago, and a good one,” reported the Sausalito News, Nov. 6, 1936.
Sen. Holohan introduced a bill to abolish “hanging and substitute lethal gas as California’s legal method of (execution).” Gov. Frank F. Merriam signed the bill into law on May 7, 1937, reported the Madera Tribune.
He also publicly predicted problems at Folsom Prison could have severe ramifications and he placed the problems square on the shoulders of newly appointed Warden Clyde Plummer.
“Sen. Holohan, one of the nation’s leading penologists and former warden of San Quentin prison, predicted the disintegration of convict morale and prison discipline at Folsom prison,” reported the San Bernadino Sun on Nov. 27, 1937.
“I am out of prison matters now and I had hoped to steer clear of this issue. But the appointment of Plummer (to warden) … was … a detrimental and dangerous move,” Holohan told the paper. “(This negativity) is bound to be transmitted to the convict population within the walls. Serious disintegration of discipline may likely result.”
In 1942, Earl Warren tapped Holohan to serve as his assistant during the race for governor. Warren won the election.
In 1943, conditions had worsened at Folsom Prison, resulting in the ouster of Warden Plummer, an investigation and the creation of the Department of Corrections in 1944.
Holohan died in 1947.
Clinton T. Duffy, San Quentin
Duffy, who grew up around the prison, served as San Quentin’s warden from 1940 until 1951.
“Warden Duffy is not a newcomer to San Quentin,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, Aug. 22, 1940. “He was born there, and when he became old enough, took up prison work as a career. He has always been there and under Warden Holohan, was secretary to the warden.”
He quickly set about to change things at the prison.
“Probably the greatest prison reform program ever undertaken is being worked out gradually at San Quentin, the nation’s largest penitentiary,” reported the Madera Tribune, April 1, 1941. “The warden, Clinton T. Duffy, is the son of a former guard at the prison. His wife is also the daughter of an ex-guard. As children, they grew up in the atmosphere of the prison.
“Without the slightest break in discipline, Warden Duffy has inaugurated a system that has for its goal the reshaping of character. It is hoped that discharged prisoners will be returned to society better men than when they were received.”
According to the paper, Duffy doubled the allowance of shaves for inmates to two per week and two haircuts per month. Inmates were also “given ironed shirts and not rough-dried ones as (before).”
Duffy’s reforms – radios in cells, art therapy and acting – are still in use today.
“Warden Duffy finds (these changes) enable the men to keep up a higher degree of self-respect that comes from maintaining the best personal appearance possible,” the paper reported. “Warden Duffy has devised a program intended to keep the men from brooding. Each cell eventually is to be equipped with radio earphones; a ‘little theater’ has been installed in which the men not only act, but design their costumes and stage settings.”
On Aug. 25, 1941, the Associated Press published a story on some of the reforms.
“For two months, workmen … have been installing earphones in each cell, putting a microphone in the warden’s home, placing three loud speakers instead of the individual heads sets in condemned row for the benefit of the 16 doomed men there,” the AP reported.
Men stayed up 30 minutes late to listen to the first broadcast. AP reported the prison broadcast was planned four hours each night, seven days a week.
“And, 60 days from now, if the state prison board gives the word … the convicts will start a regular broadcast of their own to the outside world over a national radio hookup. It’s all part of Warden Duffy’s plan to substitute rehabilitation for punishment, interest for monotony.”
Duffy worked with the prison board to slowly introduce his ideas and reforms.
“Men need an interest in life,” Duffy told the AP. “They’ve got to come to life, have something to do.”
He started a debating team, pitting inmates against college debate teams inside prison walls. Then he stared a handicraft program.
“Next it may be broadcasting. National (broadcasting companies) have offered to install the sending apparatus at the prison and furnish the time,” AP reported. “The warden says the convicts would do the broadcasting, prepare the programs, feature the prison’s excellent band and orchestra, unearth other talent and conduct an aerial search for jobs for convicts eligible for parole.”
Author Bill Sands, a former San Quentin inmate, turned his focus to helping other inmates change their ways. In a 1965 interview with the Desert Sun, he credited Warden Duffy with his transformation.
Sands was in trouble as a youth and when he was released from a reformatory, “there was the beckoning road of crime ahead. He took it, and ended up in San Quentin,” the newspaper reported. “And he met a man who was to change his whole life, Warden Clinton T. Duffy.”
Sands told the paper, “My life changed because he changed it.”
“California’s … penology system leads the nation; it’s a most progressive system, and the only one in which total accent is placed on changing men,” Sands said at the time.
Duffy died in 1982 at 84 years old.
“Duffy, a retired warden of San Quentin who introduced far-reaching humanitarian reforms into what was the nation’s largest penal institution, died in a convalescent home in Walnut Creek after a long illness,” reported the New York Times, Oct. 14, 1982.