A veteran of multiple wars was one of the early correctional staff at what would eventually become San Quentin State Prison. Capt. William “Bill” Wallace Byrnes, of the California and Texas Rangers, was a veteran of the Mexican American War as well as many conflicts with Native Americans. When Gen. James Estell held the contract to run the state prison in the 1850s, he was eager to hire Byrnes, based largely on his war record. Byrnes served two years in his role in prison management before being called away to war once again.
Those who walk the toughest beat in the state deal with people who made very poor choices. From car thieves to thrill seekers, the reasons some of those early inmates landed in state prisons are varied. The following inmate, who served his time in the early 1900s, was a police officer who almost sparked an international incident. Joseph Gustav Munz put on a badge and patrolled the river in Shanghai to help keep the navigation channels open. Munz killed a Chinese citizen and his 1904 case strained relations between the two countries. To help calm the situation, Munz was loaded on a boat and sent to America to serve his sentence in San Quentin.
A Santa Rosa health retreat was the scene of an explosion Feb. 5, 1910, when a mother and her 9-month-old baby barely escaped with their lives. Investigators quickly turned their attention to the proprietor of the sanitarium – Dr. Willard Preble Burke. The aged physician claimed the woman was attempting suicide, but police soon discovered motive and means, all pointing to Burke. He was sent to San Quentin, where he turned his medical skills to helping new prison doctor Leo Stanley
Correctional officers in California have walked the toughest beat in the state since the prison system was founded with the first prison ship, The Waban. Tough conditions and even tougher clients have kept training in the forefront for correctional careers. The following stories describe some of the dangers faced by early prison staff.
Adolph Weber was a young man from a well-off family. Why he chose to throw a mask over his face and rob a bank in 1904 is a matter of speculation. Even more shocking was the slaughter of his parents and two siblings. The Weber case set in motion new laws to prevent family members convicted of murder from inheriting their victims’ assets. His case went all the way to the state Supreme Court and finally finished at the end of a rope at Folsom State Prison.
From retired CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan to Parole Agent Harvey Watson, some choose to follow the career paths of their parents. Kernan’s mother, Peggy, was the first female captain at San Quentin and the retired secretary grew up in the shadows of the prison’s walls. Watson’s father, also named Harvey, was a parole agent in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. There have been many examples of this throughout the department’s long history.