The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1992, Volume 38, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944.
By Shelley Bookspan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 150 pages. $35.00.

Reviewed by Linda S. Parker, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, author of Native American Estate and several articles on ethnicity and crime in California.

This small but informative book examines the institutional development of the California prison system. Focusing on penal reform, the author documents the change from the brutal incarcerations at San Quentin in the early days to the more enlightened policies adopted at Chino in 1941. The work brings scholarly light to an area that sorely lacks it. Some older volumes and more local prison histories exist but none examine the growth of the state penal system. The book adds to a growing list of state prison histories nationwide.

Following the lead of other newly created frontier states, California implemented a system leasing convicts “to a private contractor who would provide for their security and care in return for the use of their labor.” Although the system was successful in a number of southern states, California’s attempt at leasing prison labor lasted less than ten years. The author probes the conflicts between state officials and lessees that led to dreadful prisoner treatment, numerous escapes, and eventually a public outcry. In its determination to follow eastern models of penal reform the state in 1858 assumed control of the newly created San Quentin facility and forever abandoned the contract system.

Conflict between reformers who wanted to rehabilitate

convicts and “conservatives” who wished to confine and punish the inmates characterized the nearly one hundred years covered by the book. In the latter nineteenth century, reformers, supported by a few state officials, promoted the “Auburn” system of solitary confinement, hard work and enforced silence. However, state officials found little industry the convicts could undertake without encountering protests from private companies who did not wish to compete with cheap prison labor. Tight-fisted legislators refused to finance reformists’ ideal of one prisoner per cell. It was not until 1878, when the 444-cell San Quentin was overflowing with more than 1400 inmates, that the state opened a branch prison at Folsom. Disputes continued into the next century. In 1935 reformers pushed authorization for a minimum security facility through the legislature (for the third time) only to have it thwarted by then Governor Frank Merriam. Remarking, “You want a clubhouse instead of a prison,” the governor, on his own authority, set about building a fortified prison.

The author strengthens the book by revealing the women reformers’ struggle to improve the lot of female prisoners. Always comprising a small minority, the “fallen women” were housed in a structure separate from the men and were generally ignored by prison officials. A 1906 account from a former male prisoner described a cell building 20 x 40 feet from which the 20-30 women inmates “were never allowed out for exercise or air,” and in which “rats ran unabated at night, and no heat source warmed the cold winter evenings.” These and other revelations inspired women’s groups to pressure state officials for better conditions at San Quentin and for a separate prison for women. When the women finally received their new facility at Tehachapi in 1933 the warden and prison doctor were elated because, “Separated as they were from the men. . . they were still a disturbing factor [with their] feuds, tears, hairpullings love-affairs, and letter smuggling.”

Although the book successfully exposes the political, social and economic forces that shaped the prison system, it might have been improved with more data on the lives of the inmates. Prisoner backgrounds, conflicts, hierarchies and routines may not have been the author’s purpose in writing an institutional history but nevertheless would have been interesting and perhaps appropriate. In a few places the author may have illustrated more clearly her quantitative data. Use of percentages would give more meaningful expression to a 350 person increase in prison population between 1905 and 1909 (p.48) and a numerical comparison of annual paroles in California and Illinois (p. 52).

The book will be useful despite minor shortfalls. Using archival, government, and secondary sources the author tells a story vital to prison reform history, California prisons and the state of California. Old photos, floor plans, and appropriate tables add depth for both the scholarly and general reader who is interested in prisons.