In 1854, rumors surrounding the new State Prison sparked the governor to request specific details on the prison’s population figures. His letter reminded those inspectors of certain duties they were required to fulfill. That letter eventually led to more formal reports carrying on to the modern prison system and today’s Office of Research at CDCR. In his letter to prison inspectors, the governor laid out expectations. The following year, a massive report on the conditions of the prison caused major changes and the eventual seizure of the prison from private contractors.
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.”
An 1874 report by the state prison investigative committee details efforts to rehabilitate inmates, lists a typical mess hall menu and describes the general layout of San Quentin. The committee also made their case to establish a branch prison at Folsom. Regarding education overseen by the prison chaplain, the report states, “Here, in the school-room, can be seen old gray-headed and young men sitting side by side, learning and being willing to learn.”
In 1855, rumors regarding mismanagement of the state prison at Point San Quentin caused alarm with state lawmakers. California was relatively new as a state and the prison, leased by Gen. Estell, was rife with problems. Escapes were frequent as inmates worked in the quarry, built the first cells and slept aboard ships. To help separate rumor from fact, an investigative committee visited the prison to see first-hand what problems needed to be addressed. Their recommendations contain seeds of what would become today’s CDCR.
A 1950 departmental training manual breaks down four-years of training into 20 pages. The introduction was written by Director of Corrections Richard A. McGee. After the complete restructuring of the state’s correctional department in 1944, McGee’s efforts to raise the bar of professional standards brought about statewide training. Walter Dunbar, who would later become the director, is listed as the state training officer. The manual states it is the duty of the correctional officers and the department to ensure the “education and rehabilitation of the human beings incarcerated in the institutions.”
An 1877 report of the prison directors shows the determination of staff as they dealt with a devastating fire that destroyed sleeping areas for over 200 inmates as well as cooking areas, the mess-hall and workshops. The report also sheds light on the views of prison management regarding rehabilitation efforts. On Feb. 28, 1876, fire swept through part of San Quentin State Prison, destroying “the main workshops and machinery” as well as the kitchens, according to Lt. Gov. James A. Johnson, director of the prison at the time, in his biennial report to the governor. The military and police from San Francisco, numbering 83 strong, helped secure the prison’s perimeter while inmates, staff and firemen from San Francisco fought the blaze.