An anonymous letter from a San Quentin inmate to a newspaper reporter led to the prison performances of a band and world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini. In 1915, eyes of the world were on San Francisco for the months-long Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. It was also a chance for the city to showcase its recovery following the devastating 1906 earthquake. The fair ran from Feb. 20 until Dec. 4, 1915.
As flu season approaches and people line up for vaccinations, many are unaware that 100 years ago an influenza pandemic swept across the globe, claiming more lives than all those lost in World War I. Hospitals were jammed with patients, overwhelming doctors and nurses. Still years away from discovering antibiotics and developing a flu vaccine, California’s prisons were left to deal with a crippling pandemic using whatever resources were available.
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.