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.
Inmates who learned job skills at the prison often found difficulty landing employment. They found an eager ally in a grizzled sea captain who delivered supplies to the prison for decades since he usually staffed his ship with former offenders.
From its beginning, ships played a pivotal role in the state’s prison system. Without reliable transportation methods, the prison relied on ships for supplies and incarceration, allowing the inmates to work the quarry on a nearby island. This third installment looks more closely at the department’s small fleet of ships.
Situated on the San Francisco Bay, the state prison came to rely on ships for trade, transportation and incarceration. Originally, three other ships were designated “the State Prison” prior to the Waban, which is commonly known as the state’s first prison ship. Inmates were also employed at a quarry on East Marin Island, kept on the ship at night, and had other posts in ships around the bay. Youth were also placed on an old sloop of war in the late 1800s to teach them maritime skills. The second installment of Unlocking History looks more closely at the maritime history of the state prison system.