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  • Cheryl Anne Stapp

Men & Women Behind Bars


When California became a state in 1850, its elected lawmakers had a multitude of issues to resolve, not the least of which was to address existing high levels of crime and establish a penal system. Initially, every county jail was to serve as a state prison until the state should build a permanent facility. Then someone hit upon the idea of using abandoned ships as floating jailhouses. In 1851, the 268-ton Waban was retrofitted as the state prison ship, and anchored at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.


In July 1852, a week after the state acquired a twenty-acre, permanent prison site at Point Quentin (the “San” was added later) on the Marin headlands, the Waban, with its forty-something prisoners, was towed up the bay and moored there. Less than six months later, the ship was overflowing with nearly 150 convicts, crammed into a space meant to hold 50 inmates. And not just men: three female prisoners, all of whom completed their sentences by the end of 1854, lived on the Waban.


The male convicts left the ship each day to work on the various tasks required to construct the buildings. The women, who slept in the ship’s cabin, also went ashore each day, where they earned small change for washing officer’s clothing. Escapes were fairly frequent. San Quentin State Prison, built by prisoner labor, officially opened in 1854 with 48 windowless cells. The new structure was designed to house 250 inmates . . . but already, more than that number was sentenced and awaiting incarceration. Over the years, the facility has been upgraded and expanded; nevertheless, it has reached its capacity again. Today it is a maximum security prison for slightly more than 3,000 convicted felons.


San Quentin is California’s oldest penitentiary. Famous 19th century outlaws who served time there include notorious stage robbers Thomas J. Hodges, alias Tom Bell; and Charles Bowles, alias Black Bart. The first three women were Mary Ann Wilson, for robbery; Lilly Smith, for grand larceny; and Dolores Martinez, sentenced to one year for manslaughter. The prison stopped admitting women in 1933.


[Pictured: San Quentin as it looked in 1859]


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