1928 Sq Arial Natl Archives 1928 18 Aa 22 014

San Quentin State Prison, taken 1928, National Archives. The new women’s prison can bee seen in the foreground. It didn’t serve its purpose long as California Institution for Women at Tehachapi was activated a few years later.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

A 1928 report on the education, library, religious activities and women’s department highlights the successes of early efforts to rehabilitate inmates. San Quentin prison staff worked to carry on the rehabilitative mission started by earlier wardens. The document, a report to Warden James B. Holohan, is one of many showing the prison system’s evolution from inmates breaking rocks to cracking open books. The report wraps up by echoing the modern mission of rehabilitation through job training and education. As these early reformers wrote, “the lack of (job skills and education means) that we have here an opportunity, and, an obligation to the state, to make it possible for the men to fit themselves for more useful careers when they return to society.”

Improvements at facility

“The space used for the Library and Chapel and Educational Work has been remodeled during the biennium and the activities centering there are carried on much more efficiently and to a great extent than previous,” the July 1, 1928, report states. “The space is being used up to its maximum and we greatly need additional space.

“During the biennium, the prison population increased 34%. The increase in bonafide enrollments in educational work was 93%. All educational activities are voluntary. … The completion of the new Women’s Prison has made it possible for many of the women to take up studies, with the result that approximately 35% of the women are taking correspondence instruction under the direction of this department.”

Much like today’s fire camps, many inmates working at the “new road camps” constructing highways up and down the state continued their education.

“Since the establishment of the new road camps, some of the men there have continued their studies. … There are students in every one of the seven camps. In two of the camps, men who taught here have organized classes which are conducted after work at night and on Sunday,” the report states.

“Instruction at San Quentin is given in classes and by means of correspondence by inmate assistants. … Classes are conducted in the chapel five afternoons a week. The purpose of these classes is to take the men having the least formal schooling and to carry their instruction to the point where they can continue their studies in the correspondence courses. The instruction is planned for short-unit courses of 12 weeks, with an intermission of one week following the completion of each term. Thus, we operate throughout the year. In the six terms which we have been operating under this plan, our chapel classes have enrolled 381, and … 70% … have completed the prescribed courses. The proportion of completions would have been larger but changes of work assignments to road camps, paroles and discharges have been the causes of men discontinuing their studies,” according to the report.

More advanced studies were offered Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Subjects included English, shop arithmetic, electricity, algebra, trigonometry, navigation, soil management, vegetable gardening and dairy management. Classes in foreign languages were also offered such as “conversational French, German and Spanish. Spanish is by far the most popular. … One hundred nineteen Spanish speaking inmates have made such progress in the English language that they can speak and read English fairly well.”

Local correspondence classes, dubbed Letter Box Courses, allowed inmates to study arithmetic, English, geography, English for Spanish-speaking people, Spanish, civics, orthography, penmanship, soil management, vegetable gardening and dairy management.

Ages of the inmate students ranged from 20 to 67 with 25% of them having “less than five years of elementary schooling” prior to incarceration while about half the inmates had less than eight years. “The average formal schooling of the entire population is seven years.”

Job skills and return to society

“Comparatively few (inmates) have been trained in any business, profession or trade requiring preparation comparable to trade apprenticeship. Take this fact in connection with the lack of (education) and it becomes evident that we have here an opportunity, and, an obligation to the state, to make it possible for the men to fit themselves for more useful careers when they return to society,” according to the report.

“Probably more than 90% of the men now in San Quentin will be returned to society after collectively spending, as a minimum, more than 15,000 years of time here. It is possible for them to go back better trained mentally, manually and morally. It is possible to so connect up our present prison industries and the educational work that they may work as a constructive whole.”

The report also advocated the hiring of vocational teachers.

“(This approach) would require vocational teachers who can make job-analyses of industrial work and establish checking-levels to insure that individuals shall be trained systematically in that work. Without the addition of a single industry, it is possible to analyze several of our industries so that they can be conducted on a trade basis. The expense connected with such a project would be a trifle when the social benefit is considered. To make a beginning in this work, two vocational teachers could be secured,” the report states.

Recommendations from 1928 reformers

“In order that the possibilities of training far better citizenship may be realized and extended, and that our obligation to the state may be met, so that the man in confinement and the social order to which he will return both may profit, I make the following recommendations:

  1. That illiterates be required, as the first duty, to acquire a working knowledge of the fundamental ‘tools of education’ …’
  2. That men unskilled in any business or trade be required to acquire some skill that will contribute to their economic efficiency;
  3. That adequate facilities for the realization of, consisting of
    1. a building capable of housing the activities of the classes, the libraries, and for use for religious, educational and other inspirational purposes;
    2. a corps of certified teachers to conduct the classes and vocational activities.
  4. That a beginning in this larger program be made by securing two additional teachers for the next fiscal year.”