By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

The state’s prison system has seen many changes since its inception in the early 1850s – especially in the realm of rehabilitation. Gone are the days of pounding rocks in a granite quarry. Today’s offenders can learn computer programming and web design to help them land decent-paying jobs when they’re released. They can also earn degrees and high school diplomas, increasing their chances of being hired. This is the first part in a series on the history of rehabilitation, taking a closer look at the department’s evolving efforts to rehabilitate offenders.

The early years

“For ages the wise and good of our species have been trying to discover the best method of reforming those who transgress the laws of God and man. The old idea of barbarous punishment was long since exploded, the experience of centuries conclusively demonstrating that no good could be effected in that way. The power of kindness, even in dealing with hardened criminals, has been found a greater protection to society than cruel penalties,” declared the Sonoma Democrat, Nov. 26, 1870.

The newspaper went on to describe a “declaration of principles” on the prison system discussed at a national gathering that year.

These were new concepts at the time.

“The treatment of criminals by society is for the protection of society. But since such treatment is directed to the criminal rather than to the crime, its great object should be his moral regeneration. Hence the supreme aim of prison discipline is the reformation of criminals, not the infliction of vindictive suffering,” the paper reported. “Punishment is suffering inflicted upon the criminal for the wrong done by him, with a special view to secure reformation.”

Those gathered in 1870 also discussed the use of indeterminate sentencing being preferable to fixed terms.

“Sentences limited only by satisfactory proof of reformation should be substituted for those measured by mere lapse of time,” the Sonoma Democrat reported. “Education is a vital force in the reformation of fallen men and women. … Depending … on the convict’s own conduct, allowing him a certain proportion of his earning, together with the opportunities of learning a trade and acquiring some education, will do much toward restoring criminals to good citizenship.”

Early rehabilitation efforts included putting the inmates to work, on regular schedules, since many had only known lives of crime.

“Guards W. Kelly, D. Sullivan and William Smith of the San Quentin State Prison stopped over in the city last night, having in charge convict Felix Geraldine, who is being transferred to Folsom. On their return the guards will have charge of twenty convict weavers, who will be set to work in the jute mill at San Quentin,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, May 17, 1896.

Some inmates redeemed themselves through acts of selflessness.

“Ramon Romero, the oldest prisoner doing time (at San Quentin), was released from prison today. He was granted a pardon by Governor Budd upon the strong petition of the supreme court justices and Sheriff Tom Cunningham of Stockton.  Romero was sent to San Quentin from Contra Costa County in November 1877, to serve a life sentence for murder. During the great fire at the prison in 1881, he refused to escape with the other prisoners, and rendered the state great service in assisting in extinguishing the flames. Romero, although advanced in years, is still strong and healthy, and intends going to work on a ranch near Stockton,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, June 5, 1898.

The prison system also sought guidance from nationally recognized experts.

“John McLaughry, warden of the … federal prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is visiting the California state prisons with a view to suggesting possible reforms, which may be taken up by the next legislature,” reported the Sausalito News, Dec. 24, 1904. “McLaughry, who is recognized as one of the greatest authorities on penology in the world, has visited all the modern penitentiaries of Europe and this country. He came to California at the request of the State Board of Prison Directors, who are not entirely satisfied with the conditions of our prisons. He spent the latter part of last week at Folsom prison and is at present spending several days at San Quentin.”

In 1929, the state sought to bring law enforcement, investigations and incarceration under one umbrella.

On April 30, Gov. Young “signed the bill creating the state department of penology, combining five existing divisions under one department director who becomes a member of the governor’s council. … The (director’s) annual salary will be $3,000,” according to a United Press report.

“The bureau of criminal investigation becomes a division in the department of penology. Other divisions created are prisons and paroles, pardons and commutations, narcotics and criminology,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, June 27, 1929.

In the early 1940s, the department was again reorganized.

Entertainment boosts rehabilitative efforts

A Folsom Prison warden made headlines when he allowed “moving pictures” to be shown to inmates on Christmas Day in 1912.

“Moving pictures for Christmas at Folsom,” declared the headline for a story in the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 26, 1912. “Under the direction of Warden Johnston the hearts of more than 1,100 convicts were lightened by a musical program, moving pictures and extras at the afternoon meal at Folsom prison yesterday.”

In the early 1940s, before the days of TV or educational video programs, the state undertook an experimental method of giving a boost to its rehabilitative efforts.

San Quentin Warden Clinton T. 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,” reported the Madera Tribune, April 1, 1941.

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. “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.”

“Radio is playing a part in rehabilitation of convicts in two of California’s largest prisons – Folsom and San Quentin. Folsom … is the latest addition to the new program which has endorsement of the state board of prison terms and paroles. Both institutions now are broadcasting prison talent shows from behind the walls,” reported the Madera Tribune, April 2, 1942. “The purpose of these programs, according to Booth B. Goodman, state director of penology, is to educate the public to its obligation to reabsorb men and women released from penal institutions. Folsom and San Quentin prison cells also have been equipped with radio receiving outlets. At certain hours, prisoners may listen in on selected programs. The receiving hoop-up also affords an easy means for wardens to address prisoners. The threat of removal of radio privileges is said to be one of the best means of discipline.”

(Editor’s note: Today, inmate-created, award-winning broadcasts continue at San Quentin with the “San Quentin Prison Report” and the podcast, “Ear Hustle.” The San Quentin Prison Report program is soon to be replicated at California State Prison, Solano, through Arts-in-Corrections, a partnership of CDCR and the California Arts Council. The SOL program will be facilitated by Bay Area radio station KALW.)