On April 18, 1906, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area. The city and many of the surrounding communities were left in ruins and some unscrupulous types took advantage of the confusion and chaos. Meanwhile, the sturdily built San Quentin State Prison was relatively unscathed but the jolt certainly caused a scare among staff and inmates.
For over 150 years, California’s prison system has had to adapt to new media. In the early 1940s, San Quentin Warden Clinton T. Duffy wired cells for radios. But before movies and television sets were commonplace in prisons, the department grappled with the notion of allowing a filmmaker into the prison as early as 1897. Convicted murderer Theodore Durrant, dubbed “Demon of the Belfry” by the press, was due to be executed at San Quentin. To help raise funds for his defense, Durrant’s parents contracted with the operator of an animatoscope to film the inmate. The family charged admission for this early film to raise money for his defense as his appeal was before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1895, Durrant was convicted of murdering two young women and hiding their bodies in a church belfry and a closet. His trial went on for years, garnering headlines and multiple pages of coverage.
Spiritualism and attempts to communicate with the dearly departed surged in popularity during and shortly after World War I with some of its more nefarious practitioners ending up in state penitentiaries. The case of a clairvoyant criminal ring involving fraudulent sales of radium mining stock, tall tales told by a smooth-talking mystic and costume changes reads more like a movie than a bit of history.
The arts have played a role in the rehabilitation of offenders. From painting to acting, inmates have turned around their lives, becoming productive citizens after release from prison. Even the violence of the 1970s didn’t stop the state from trying to achieve this goal. This is the fourth part in a series delving deeper into the department’s rehabilitative efforts.
The state’s transition from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles required roads through mountainous terrain. As an experiment, low-level inmates were sent to honor camps to help construct those highways. Later, the road camps were turned into firefighting camps with many still in use today. Early on, education for inmates was seen as a major stepping stone to leading a productive life post-release. Programs to help inmates earn diplomas, degrees and certificates were gradually added to the prison system. This is the third part in a series delving deeper in the department’s efforts to rehabilitate offenders.
In 1944, the reorganization of the state corrections department put the emphasis on rehabilitation. New institutions adopted the rehabilitation mission. This is the second part of a series taking a closer look at the evolution of rehabilitative methods in the department.