1919 Sq Old Cell House Marin Public Library Anne T Kent California Room

The old cell buildings, 1919. Marin Public Library Anne T. Kent California Room.

(Editor’s note: Former Correctional Officer William Conroy, who worked at San Quentin from 1903 to 1907, described what visitors saw when they toured San Quentin prison. The story was published in the Santa Cruz Evening News, Jan. 3, 1912. This was the fifth of a short series Conroy wrote for the newspaper. At the time it was published, Conroy worked for the Santa Cruz Fire Department. He was also a deputy sheriff. Inside CDCR will publish his series, as originally written, in the coming weeks. Read the other stories by William Conroy.)

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

1919 Sq Clothing Room Marin Public Library Anne T Kent California Room Crop

The clothing room at San Quentin, 1919. Marin Public Library Anne T. Kent California Room.

It is often people ask me, “What do you see at San Quentin going through the prison?” And about the best way I can answer is to take you right through on paper, although I have taken hundreds in person.

You first leave all papers, guns, etc., at the outside gate of the prison in care of the gate tender, who has a place provided for them. The next step is to follow the guard in whose charge you have placed yourself.

You follow him through the inner gate and on to the clothing rooms and measure room where the Bertillon system is shown to you. There he will stop with you for a few minutes and explain whatever you may ask him.

From the clothing room you are taken down to the dining room and then through the dining room into the jute mills. When you are about to enter the gate to the jute mill you are requested to throw away a cigar if you should happen to be smoking and of all the scrambling a person ever saw you will see it among the prisoners to get in possession of the discarded cigar.

Then as the gate to the mill opens you follow the guard into the yard of the jute mill and there another guard falls in behind you, and stays there until you go through the mill and out of the yard again.

Just inside the gate there is stationed a prisoner with a whisk broom and he will brush you and will clean off any particles of jute or dust that may have got on your clothes while making the rounds of the mill. This prisoner is one of the only two inside the walls that you are allowed to give any money to. You can hand him any amount you may see fit for brushing you up, and he is right on the job all the while, and looking for the next.

Up to the gallows

After you have made the tour of the mill, get cleaned up at the gate and are out of the yard again, you are taken up through the carpenter shop and machine shop, and then upstairs to the gallows. At the gallows you are turned over to the only prisoner you are allowed to speak to and he starts in with the ropes, which are about 12 or 14, which are stretching from the ceiling with a 300-pound weight on the end of them, waiting for their victim.

All the rope used for this purpose is hung up and stretched for six months to a year in order to get all the slack out of it and as soon as one is used for this purpose another is hung up in its place to stretch.

From this the guard takes you to the gallows and explains all its workings; and from the gallows he leads you to the little deck, where he has a little booklet which he has the privilege to offer you for any sum you may wish to pay him in return.

The cell buildings

From the gallows you are led back to the upper yard where you can look over to where the cell buildings are, but you are not allowed to go near them. At the time I was there, and I do not think it has changed yet, visitors were not allowed to visit the tailoring and shoe shops, not the hospital, the dungeons, the drug store, the doctor’s office, the library, and not the women’s ward.

No women visitors were allowed inside the prison. I don’t think there was ever any women visitors allowed to visit the women’s ward, outside of some religious organization, such as the women of the Salvation Army, and those were seldom and very few in number.

A woman could go up in the balcony and overlook the upper yard; that is if they took favorable with the captain of the guards, otherwise she could content herself with sitting on the benches in front and staring at the big iron gate and try to figure out in her own mind what was on the other side.

Anyone going through the prison is not allowed to speak to any of the prisoners. If he sees a prisoner inside that he wishes to talk to, he must go to the captain of the guards and ask for an interview with him. Then the captain will have him brought out to his office, and you can talk with him for half an hour or so.

Necessary precautions

The only reason that I can give is that they are afraid they will smuggle things into the prisoners such as “dope,” and narcotics. There are many people who visit San Quentin and when a guard is taking a bunch of them through, he does not know where he has an ex-convict from some other prison, or whether or not he may have a father or brother serving time right in San Quentin. Therefore it is necessary that there must be more or less precaution used in escorting prisoners through the prison. No ex-convict, or anyone who has served time in the prison, is allowed on the prison grounds after he serves his term in prison.