By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
In the 1880s, John Joseph Smith worked on his father’s farm, but seeing a low return on investment, he decided farming wasn’t in his future. The 21-year-old Smith set off to try a different career path – the state prison system.
On Aug. 15, 1889, Smith “entered the employ of the Folsom State Prison as a guard. … (He was) the youngest guard at the time of his appointment in any state prison in California and he was looked upon by the older guards as a young man over-zealous,” according to the 1923 book, “History of Sacramento County.”
Near the end of 1889, he transferred to San Quentin and quickly promoted. “First he became a policeman in the jute mill, then chief of the first guards and then captain of the guards at San Quentin,” according to the book.
After 10 years at San Quentin, he was transferred back to Folsom to serve as lieutenant of yards as well as property clerk. With his track record well established, he was appointed warden of the prison on Nov. 15, 1913. He was one of the first wardens in the state who worked his way up through the ranks.
“By his efficient administration have been made possible much prison reform and other incidental improvements which, it may be safe to say, have been without precedent in any state institution of the kind. Without excessive expenditure of funds, Warden Smith has added many new departments, all of which were badly needed at Folsom, where the total absence of prison factories has made the problem of prison employment difficult to solve,” according to the 1923 book.
With Folsom Prison sitting on fertile ground, Smith immediately returned to his roots and put the inmates to work through farming.
According to the Biennial Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, covering July 1, 1912, to June 30, 1914, the agricultural endeavors were novel in their scope and design.
“The farm consists of some 200 acres under cultivation. The new cow barn was recently finished and is now being used in almost every respect and contains stalls for fifty cows, a milk room, a large silo and separator. This barn is made entirely of reinforced concrete. At the present time they are only milking 16 cows. When the herd is increased, the separator and butter churn, which are now run by hand, ought to be replaced by power-propelled machines. When this is done, Folsom will have one of the best equipped dairies in the state,” the 1914 report states. “Four cement piggeries are in the course of construction, and when they are completed, the 75 or 80 pigs will have A1 living quarters. In the past, the pigs have been turned loose and allowed to exist any way they could, and this method proved to be very extravagant and wasteful. The plan of these piggeries is a very novel one, and credit for them is due to the head farmer. The chickens, numbering about 1,000, are still housed in the old coops, but these will be torn down and replaced by modern houses.”
The report praises the early expansion efforts.
“The farm presents one of the most hopeful features of the work at Folsom. It offers healthy outdoor occupation for about 75 prisoners, and most of these men are more or less trusted. The nature of the farm-work makes it essential that the honor system be used in this department, and probably the next two year will see a big development in this system, which otherwise would have been much slower.”
“By introducing agriculture in its various forms – horticulture, dairying, animal husbandry, poultry- and hog-raising – and persistently and wisely developing these features, he has induced the state recently to add some 800 acres of wooded hillside lands adjoining and this area is in line for further development into orchards, vineyards, hayfields and dairies,” the 1923 book reports. “All the work is done by convict labor under the direction of guards, who are well qualified in the specific branches represented on the farm. The produce thus harvested, while not entirely supplying the commissary on Represa, is gradually rendering the prison self-supporting and already inmates supply by their labor all the milk, cream and butter used by them. … (Despite the) warden’s early repugnance to agricultural pursuits, (his) experience in that field has undoubtedly enabled him to render a real service to the state in helping to solve the vexed problems of prison employment.”
Under Warden Smith, other facilities were also improved.
“The inside of the prison has also changed for the better in proportion to the outside development, much attention having been given to the problems of sanitation, and health conditions never were better there than they are today,” according to the author. “Year by year witnesses the completion of added buildings, the assembly hall, 50 by 125 feet, having been finished in 1922. This will also be used as a school and at time for entertainment such as moving pictures, so that it will serve more than one good purpose, and so fill a long-felt want.”
The goal was “to employ the inmates busily, and as far as possibly, fit them for work at which they may find employment when released,” Warden Smith said.
A 1921 inspection report noted the old main cell building did not have running water or toilets but the new cell building was more modern.
A 1922 report of the prison directors detailed Folsom’s farming efforts.
“We are endeavoring to develop industries at the prisons that will keep the inmates busily employed and as far as possible fit them for work at which they may find employment when released. The manufacturing and trades departments at San Quentin are expanding and progressing as rapidly as seems practicable and at Folsom where greater area of land permits we are arranging to work more men outdoors at farming and allied occupations,” the report states.
In the same report, Warden Smith listed the amount produced through their agricultural endeavors.
“It has been particularly gratifying to realize the increasing returns from the orchards as they approach the age of full bearing. Whereas during the last biennium we produced three and a half tons of dried fruit, the crop for the present period totaled 12 tons of dried, and 15 tons of fresh fruit,” he wrote. “Large quantities of other food supplies have also been produced on the farm, including 175 tons of fresh vegetables, 500 cases of eggs, 4 tons of dressed poultry, 54,000 gallons of milk, 5 tons of butter, 3 tons of beef, 1 ton of veal, 1 ton of mutton, 4 tons of pork, and 1,000 pounds of honey. … In addition to these supplies of foodstuffs the farm has produced the following crops: 200 sacks of wheat; 216 sacks of barley, 70 tons of alfalfa hay, 206 tons of grain hay, 46 tons of straw, 70 tons of silage, and 85 tons of field pumpkins.”
The prison also boasted 90 head of sheep and a dairy herd 63 strong.
Smith served as Folsom’s warden until Feb. 2, 1927, retiring after 37 years of state service. He said he looked forward to taking a long-deserved vacation.
Despite retiring, it wasn’t end of his state service. He became the vault custodian for the state treasurer, where he worked steadily until he died of a heart attack at 65 years old in 1934.
Did you know?
Warden Smith was married in 1899 to Rose Schmidt, who passed away in 1910. He remarried in 1913, this time to Muriel Swain. Friends referred to him as a “dead shot” when it came to his favorite pastime – duck hunting.
He ended up purchasing 80 acres of farm land near Knight’s Landing and 64 rough acres he developed as a vineyard on Alder Creek.