The San Quentin State Prison site selection dates back to the early years of the California state and is rife with accusations of political fraud and corruption. There was also corruption and flagrant mismanagement by those responsible for looking after and securing the prisoners.
In 1851, Mexican War General James Madison Estell and former Governor John McDougal received the state contract to run the future prison on a 10-year lease in exchange for the right to sell the prisoners’ labor. It was a contract that had been led by the Legislature by McDougal. The prisoners were first held on the 268 ton ship, the Waban, which had been abandoned during the gold rush. It was moored off Angel Island and the prisoners worked in a stone quarry under the safety of John Hayes and John Caperton, former sheriff and deputy of San Francisco.
In 1852, the state legislature passed another law that would fund construction of the prison to replace the overcrowded Waban. Bids were solicited for the new prison, and although 20 acres of land were offered free to the state in Martinez, Governor John Bigler accepted the highest bid of $10,000 for 20 acres of Punta de San Quentin by Benjamin Buckelew. The Waban was moved to the point and construction began on buildings to house prison guards, a cafeteria for prisoners, and machine and tool workshops.
Estell then purchased an additional 16 acres in Buckelew which contained the raw materials for a brickyard and stone quarry. A deep-water wharf was built near the prison site and the prisoners began making bricks which were sold to a rapidly growing market in San Francisco. Estell also maintained a quarry on Marin Island near Loch Lomond which was worked by prisoners housed aboard a hulk in the bay.
Newspaper reports chronicle public dissatisfaction with the prison deal, especially since the $100,000 budgeted for the actual construction was left out when the bill was printed. and that Bigler accepted a million dollar offer from Estell’s friend Ferdinand Vassault. This was eventually revoked by the legislature and Estell was awarded the $725,000 contract.
In 1854, the original prison buildings were supplemented with prison labor, and Estell, now a state legislator, sublet prison administration to others. Other newspaper reports reported the prisoners’ inhumane living and working conditions and the use of “floggings” and “showering” with high-pressure hoses as punishments for infractions. There were also over 80 escapes in the first few years because no outer walls had been built and the prison work crews were under the supervision of only one or two guards. Many prisoners and some guards were injured or killed during these escape attempts.
The Legislature ended the prison rental program in 1860, and the lieutenant governor was appointed until the state began hiring prison guards in 1880. Prisoner life and work improved in over the years and rehab programs became the norm under future goalies James A. Johnston and Clinton Duffy.
History Watch is written by Scott Fletcher, a volunteer with the Marin History Museum, marinhistory.org. Images included in History Watch can be purchased by calling 415-382-1182 or emailing [email protected]