In the early 1970s, the department made a concerted effort to hire and train women to work in the state’s prisons but those early cadets faced resistance and hostility from coworkers, supervisors, inmates and even a state senator.
Singer Johnny Cash and Folsom State Prison have been linked ever since Cash’s 1968 performance and the hit record that emerged from the endeavor. While Cash may have gotten the headlines, he wasn’t the first major recording artist to perform at the prison. After becoming the first American singer to stage two command performances for British royalty, two days later Sammy Davis Jr. made the trek to Folsom State Prison to become the first major artist to perform at the institution. It was November 1961.
In the mid-1850s, San Quentin hadn’t enacted a classification system to keep younger first-time offenders away from hardened criminals. Early wardens called for just such a system but the relatively new prison didn’t have the resources or space, according to rebuttals at the time. The fate of one young first-time inmate who served a year in the state prison highlighted the need for a classification system. Such was the case of Richard Barter, son of a British military officer in Canada, who came to California with the hopes of supporting his sister after their parents died. While incarcerated, the 20-year-old Barter met outlaw gang leader Tom Bell. After his release, Barter threw his lot in with Bell’s gang.
In 1912, the wardens for the state’s only two prisons laid out plans for ways to improve the chances of inmates to reintegrate into society after their incarceration. In that year’s Report of the State Board of Prison Directors, the wardens outlined progress made, new programs and new construction.
On Feb. 22, 1913, a world-famous stage actress built on the rehabilitative efforts of previous actors, such as H.B. Warner, to bring art into San Quentin State Prison. “The Californian authorities invited (Sarah) Bernhardt, then on tour of that state, to play before the prisoners of San Quentin,” reported the Literary Digest, 1913. “This must have furnished a new sensation for even Sarah, who has not led an absolutely quiet life. In her audience … were 2,000 prisoners of all races and nationalities. … Women were not excluded (and) a dozen condemned to death (were placed) in the front row.”
The notion of arts in a correctional setting has roots dating back to 1911, when an innovative program, coordinated with private partners as well as a grizzled old steamship captain, came to fruition. According to many accounts, it was the first time inmates were entertained by an outside theatrical group. The tale presented to the offenders was one of hope after parole. Thanks to this initial offering, arts in a correctional setting evolved to become a recognized rehabilitative tool.