1924 Folsom Field Day Folsom State Prison Sacramento Public Library

Folsom Field Day at Folsom State Prison was an Independence Day celebration, circa 1924. Photo courtesy of Sacramento Public Library.

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

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a reform movement make its way across the country’s prison systems. In 1912, the wardens for the California’s only two prisons laid out plans for ways to improve the chances of inmates to reintegrate into society after their incarceration. In the Report of the State Board of Prison Directors, they outlined progress made, new programs and new construction at San Quentin and Folsom State Prison.

‘Reform warden’ makes changes at Folsom

In his report dated Nov. 30, 1912, Folsom Prison’s new warden touched on institution improvements and rehabilitative efforts.

1915 Sq Warden James Johnston

Folsom Warden James Johnston served from 1912-13, then became warden at San Quentin. Later, he was the first warden at the federal penitentiary, Alcatraz.

In the post for less than six months, the 36-year-old warden immediately began making much-needed repairs and doing away with areas he saw as problems. The warden wasn’t in Folsom for long as he was appointed San Quentin’s warden the following year. Warden James Johnston, often called the “reform warden,” made lasting impressions on the state prison system starting with Folsom State Prison. (Read more about reform-minded wardens.)

He proposed expanding the prison to “carry out plans for classification” of prisoners. He also sought to change the public’s mindset regarding incarceration. Seeds of what he would write two years later is evident in his earlier reports. (Read his 1914 article.)

“The very moment a man reaches the gate and is turned over to our care, we begin the effort to fit him to go out again,” Folsom Warden Johnston wrote. “Men should leave prison better than they enter. … Every man gets plenty of good, plain food, plenty of fresh air, plenty of work and all the wholesome amusement and recreation practicable to allow, and is encouraged in mental development and moral training.”

The warden treated the inmates as individuals rather than simply a number.

“I have a personal talk with every man. The general overseer tries to learn all that he can of him and his case and career. The captain of the guard does the same and so does the turnkey. The physician examines him thoroughly. If physical defects are found, every effort is made to remedy them,” he wrote.

Warden Johnston also fostered family connections.

“Correspondence with relatives, particularly with parents, is encouraged. Habits of cleanliness and decency are aided,” he wrote.

He also advocated for implementing a system to pay the inmates for their labor.

“The most important step that can be taken in the management of the prison is to institute a system of paying wages to men who do good work,” he wrote. “Such a plan will … have a deep and lasting, and sometimes determining, influence on the future careers of men leaving here after serving their time anxious to rehabilitate themselves in the world outside.”

The Folsom warden saw job training and education as important cornerstones to rehabilitation.

“My plan is to start a night school immediately, teaching the elementary branches to the illiterate, and more advanced courses to each man in accordance with his present educational status and his needs; later, a day school, and also shop-training for the men who want to learn trades,” he reported. “I have no doubt that education along proper lines will be of decided advantage not only to men who are sincere in their desire to reform, but also to illiterates whose very ignorance may have contributed to their first conviction.”

He made sure the inmates had a well-stocked library.

“Mental awakening through the stimulus of good books produces good results. I am doing everything possible to build up our library and to induce the men to make the greatest possible use of it. Our books are carefully selected and so far as possible we try to guide the reading so as to secure greatest benefits to the individual. We have on our shelves and cataloged at the present time some 3,150 volumes (such as) fiction, poetry, biography, history, educational, scientific and miscellaneous. We also subscribe for all the popular magazines and in addition to those subscribed for individuals we receive for general distribution 224 copies of the best magazines monthly,” he reported.

In his report, Warden Johnston also requested $51,805 to complete the wall around the prison and $121,327 for the completion of cell buildings.

Warden Johnston would later replace the San Quentin warden and eventually become warden of Alcatraz.

Warden pushes education, improvements at San Quentin

San Quentin Warden John E. Hoyle touted prison improvements, implementing an inmate classification system while expanding opportunities for inmates to learn trade skills. He was appointed warden in 1907 and immediately set about to treat the men in a different manner. “From the beginning of his administration (he) sought to reform the men instead of punishing them,” wrote George Hunter regarding Bible studies he brought into the prison in 1912.

Warden Hoyle 1921 Sq Warden From 1907 13 State Archives

Warden John Hoyle served from 1907 until he left in 1913. He implemented many reforms at the prison. Photo circa 1921, eight years after he retired. California State Library.

“Considerable more work along educational lines has been accomplished during the past two years than formerly,” Hoyle wrote in his report to the State Board of Prison Directors dated Nov. 8, 1912. “The character of such work has also been greatly improved. Our day school has an average attendance of 120, in addition to the 54 prisoners of mature age who are taking advantage of the night school, and it is expected that this work will be extended as facilities are acquired for doing so, and I have no doubt that the results of efforts being made in this respect will be conspicuously apparent in the improved character of our inmates.”

He also advocated for inmates to earn a small wage for their work, giving them a chance to help their dependents and help ease the inmate’s transition back into society.

“In my opinion, some system should be devised and adopted whereby industrious prisoners may be compensated … for their work. Under such a system, any dependent outside friends of prisoners might be benefited by their labor here, and it appears to me also that such a plan would prove instrumental in maintaining the self-respect of a prisoner, as well as to aid him at the time of his discharge,” he wrote.

The prison had recently added jobs beyond the jute mill. They included a furniture factory, tin shop and other areas with the products being used in public buildings.

“The last Legislature enacted a law whereby permission was given to employ the prisoners in San Quentin Prison in manufacturing supplies for the public institutions of the State, for instance, furniture for public buildings and schools, clothing, shoes, etc., for the inmates of the different public institutions,” reported the Board of Prison Directors. “Despite a very strong protest, a protest that had made itself felt in past years, such a law was passed, and today in San Quentin Prison, men who entered the prison without a trade of any kind are looking forward to the day of their discharge when they may go out into the world, capable of earning good wages and being useful and upright citizens.”

San Quentin was in the process of making several improvements to the institution.

“Our new cell house will be ready of occupancy about the first of January next, and at that time it will be practicable for us to commence the grading and classification of our prisoners, and adopt varied uniforms, according to the different grades,” Warden Hoyle reported. “This will mean practically an entire reorganization of the prison. The new cell house is considered one of the finest and most modern in the United States. The new dining room and kitchen are well under way, and it is expected that they will be ready of occupancy by March 1913.”

Warden Hoyle attributed the successes of the prison to “the faithful and hearty cooperation of your honorable Board (of Prison Directors) as well as the officers and guards of the prison.”

William H. Lloyd, the resident chaplain, ran the school in addition to managing religious services. He also helped guide the inmates through introspection.

“The chaplain has during the year held interviews with about 1,000 men, listening to their stories, or questioning them regarding the causes of their downfall, and offering such suggestions or counsel as each case would call forth,” he reported.

The warden also believed in the value of arts in the prison, allowing the inmates to put on a vaudeville show twice each year. Under Hoyle’s leadership, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” was also performed for inmates by actors from San Francisco (read story here), which opened the gates for other outside groups to offer performances as a rehabilitative tool.

1920 Vaudeville Act Walks Through Yard At Sq Toned

Inmates put on two vaudeville shows per year at San Quentin such as this one in 1920. Photo courtesy of California State Library.