By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Today’s offenders have opportunities to learn computer programming, coding and drafting. Since its founding, the state prison system has tried to rehabilitate inmates by teaching skills they can use to better their chances at success when they reintegrate into society. The department has also adapted to technological advancements ranging from transportation and lighting to communication and security.
Telegraph speeds communication
Receiving or sending information quickly from one end of the state to the other was a challenge in the state’s early years. Letters were sent by stagecoach and train, taking days or weeks to reach their destination. With the telegraph, and the installation of lines spanning the continent, messages could be quickly transmitted.
“The excitement consequent upon the announcement of the success of the Atlantic Submarine Cable proved galvanic … to the Pacific and Atlantic project between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Between those two points the distance is put down at about 600 miles, and it is not likely the line will extend much beyond Los Angeles for some time to come, should it ever reach that point,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Sept. 24, 1858. “The line commencing at Placerville had been started before this exciting news arrived. A company had been organized to build a telegraph line to Salt Lake, a considerable portion of the wire purchased, and the work fairly entered upon. This line … follows the great channel of communication from the Missouri to the Sacramento. … Until this line is completed, we, on the Pacific coast, cannot be particularly benefited by the messages received by the Atlantic Submarine Telegraph. Twenty to 24 days will still intervene between us and the news from (Europe).”
The technology even factored into the Civil War but wasn’t immediately embraced by military leaders.
“At the beginning of the war some of the prominent old army officers were opposed to the use of the telegraph, favoring the old courier plan. In constructing the first military telegraph line we, therefore, bent all our energies to break down this prejudice, and before I had completed it – following McClellan’s army into West Virginia – these very men came to me in high praise of its usefulness,” recalled T.B.A. David, who was one of five men commissioned by the government to manage the military telegraph service, reported the Daily Alta California, July 12, 1886.
The Civil War did help spur the country into action to complete the transcontinental telegraph and railroad.
“The role of the telegraph and the railroad expanded (during the Civil War). Railroads rapidly transported troops and supplies. The telegraph provided near-instantaneous communication over great distances,” reports the National Archives and Records Administration.
When a new line was in place near the state prison, corrections officials adapted to make use of the technology of the day.
“The postal telegraph cable across the bay from this city to Oakland was laid this morning,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 19, 1886.
To utilize the new line, the Board of Prison Directors created a telegraph operator position at San Quentin, to receive a salary of $40 per month.
The telegraph even helped one inmate learn an employable job skill.
“Young Melville … comes out of prison a full-fledged telegraph operator,” declared the San Francisco Call, Oct. 25, 1898. “William Melville, the famous Bank of California embezzler, who was pardoned last Saturday by Governor Budd, thus avoiding serving the last year of his eight-year sentence, was released from confinement today and started for San Francisco. For several years Melville has been the telegraph operator at (San Quentin), having learned the art while acting as clerk in J.B. Ellis’ office. His conduct has always been exemplary.”
Telephones connect prisons
“A new and complete system of telephones will in a few days supplant the inadequate one existing at (San Quentin) at present. The plant has arrived at the penitentiary and will be in operation in a short time. The new system will connect guard posts, offices and gates, and will no doubt prove to be a great convenience to prison officials,” reported the San Francisco Call, March 22, 1900.
In 1917, Folsom State Prison’s telephone system was upgraded with new “phones added where required,” according to a report of the prison directors.
State offices in Sacramento were outfitted with a “dial telephone system” in 1929, according to the United Press.
Railroad revolutionizes transportation
Horse-drawn wagons were the big rigs of their day, supplying remote areas with food, raw materials and goods.
“In the halcyon days of (the town of) Folsom, it was not uncommon for 20 or 30 eight- or ten-mule teams to leave daily with freight destined over the mountains,” recalled Judge W.A. Anderson in the Sacramento Union, Dec. 10, 1911.
In Utah in 1860, the driving of the ceremonial golden spike connected the east and west coast railroads, ushering in the age of the locomotive.
Folsom Prison, the state’s newest prison at the time, was the first in California to use the locomotive’s headlight innovation to help illuminate the prison’s yard and perimeter. The prison’s wall had yet to be completed so the lights served as a way to improve security and public safety.
“(Fifteen locomotive headlights) have been set in position along the wall of the canal, and some of them have been up on the opposite bank, on the roof of the prison building, and about the grounds. They are lit early in the evening, and shed enough light to brighten the surrounding of the prison yard, so that everything can be plainly seen. … Heretofore the prison grounds have been without much light, and once in the yard, it was an easy matter for a prisoner to slip away and elude detection. A guard has been stationed on the dam and remains there all night. Other guards have also been put on duty about the place at night,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Oct. 28, 1890.
Workmen cleared trees and brush around the canal and railroad line between the prison and town.
“The work is being done under the direction of the Folsom Water Power Company, and after the trees are cut down, they are sawed up into the proper length and burned in the engines used by the convicts on the canal and dam and on the prison locomotive,” reported the Union, Nov. 24, 1890.
One prison train operator held the position from 1890 until 1906.
“Edward O’Brien of Represa died Sunday morning, death coming rather unexpectedly. Mr. O’Brien had held the position as locomotive engineer at Folsom Prison for about 16 years,” reported the Sacramento Union, Sept. 11, 1906. “He was a genial gentleman, and had many friends among the prison employees and in Folsom. Deceased was a native of Tiperary, Ireland, and was aged 59 years. He leaves no immediate relatives here. The remains were taken to Sacramento, where mass will be held at the cathedral tomorrow, after which the body will be taken to Holy Cross cemetery, San Francisco.”
Lighting the way
The first report of the newly created State Board of Prison Directors, dated Nov. 1, 1880, uncovered some areas the board found lacking – including methods of providing light in the prison
“One of the first subjects that demanded the attention of the Board was the better lighting of the prison yard and grounds. The light produced by lamps, then in use, being entirely inadequate as well as unsafe, troublesome and expensive. Accordingly, on the 31st day of May last, the Board, after a careful and thorough investigation of the subject of manufacturing illuminating gas, entered into a written contract with the San Rafael Gas Company, for a supply of coal gas for the prison, for a period of 10 years, at the rate of $3 per 1,000 cubic feet, for the first 50,000 feet, and $2.90 per 1,000 cubic feet, for all in excess of that amount consumed during any one month, the gas to be of no less than 20-candle power,” according to the report. “The work was completed on the 9th day of October, and has since been in successful operation. … The lighting of the prison by this method is greatly superior to the old, in safety, brilliancy and economy.”
The inmate’s cells apparently remained with the original lighting method of kerosene lamps and it took nearly another 40 years for a new lighting system to reach the cells.
In 1893, Folsom Prison became the first prison in the nation to use electric lights.
“All of the old cell buildings have been wired for electricity, and recently the coal oil (kerosene) lamp method of lighting, which has been in vogue since the 1850s, gave way to the system of electric lighting,” according to the Biennial Report of the State Board of Prison Directors, 1917.
Crime also adapts to new technology
Much like scam artists using telephones and computers to bilk victims out of hard-earned cash, early swindlers used telegraph and telephone lines to commit crimes.
“Lee Rial, said to be head of a bunco trust which fleeced (victims) by fake race horses, will appear before Judge Finlayson Friday to make a motion for a new trial. If this is denied he will be sentenced. A jury yesterday afternoon found Rial guilty of grand larceny in obtaining $5,140 from G. P. Friesz … in a Venice dummy poolroom,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, May 20, 1913. “The case went to the jury at 4:30 o’clock. A verdict of guilty was returned shortly before 8 o’clock last night. The maximum penalty for grand larceny is ten years. Rial, from all outward appearances, was at ease as he sat waiting for the jury.”
On May 26, 1913, Rial was sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. His partner, James Byrnes, was also sentenced to a decade at San Quentin but ended up being sent to Folsom State Prison.
The bunco trust ended up netting multiple swindlers but Rial and Byrnes were the top two organizers, according to law enforcement.