Those who walk the toughest beat in the state deal with people who made very poor choices. From car thieves to those facing insurmountable medical debt, the reasons some of those early inmates landed in state prisons are varied. The following inmates, who served their time in the early 1900s, range from actors who turned to crime and a movie fan who emulated the silver screen’s cowboy bandits to another inmate who turned his prison experiences into a play to urge reform.
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. The farm boy was the youngest officer in the state prison system in 1889. He eventually worked his way up to become warden. In all, he had 37 years of state service when he left in 1927.
From office closures to evacuations, CDCR staff living and working in the path of Butte County’s devastating Camp Fire were heavily impacted along with their friends and neighbors. Staff also rushed to the scene to help. Wiping out the town of Paradise, the state’s largest and deadliest fire drew firefighters from nearby inmate fire camps and institutions. CDCR also responded by activating Peer Support teams to travel to the affected areas.
Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” often cast in roles far younger than her years. The silent screen star was regularly in the headlines for founding her own film company, later creating United Artists and volunteering to help civilian efforts during the first two world wars. Somehow, the highest-paid actress in the country also found time to entertain inmates at San Quentin. She was one of many who were vocal in their support for rehabilitation.
Joseph Wess Moore was a 15-year-old farm boy who joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. Decades later, he found himself sitting in San Quentin serving a life sentence for murder. While incarcerated, he fell in love with literature and the stories that could take him beyond the walls of the prison. Soon he put pen to paper to craft his own tales, publishing some of his writings in a small book used to promote prison reform.