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San Quentin

California's Oldest Prison


The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill impacted all aspects of life in California. The gold meant a great influx of new people to the region. Unfortunately, the gold rush also brought a number of unsavory people. Many of these would eventually require incarceration. These circumstances led to the creation of one of the most famous prisons in the nation.

Before a permanent facility was erected, convicts were housed on prison ships. The use of prison ships as means to hold those guilty of crimes was not new to the penitentiary system. The British held many patriots on prison ships during the American Revolution. Even years after numerous permanent facilities existed, this practice continued in a more tragic fashion during World War II. The Japanese transported numerous prisoners in merchant vessels that were unfortunately the targets of many allied naval ships.

Before San Quentin was built on the outskirts of San Francisco, the prisoners were kept on prison ships such as the "Waban." The California legal system decided to create a more permanent structure because of overcrowding and frequent escapes aboard the ship. They chose Point San Quentin and purchased 20 acres of land to begin what would become the state's oldest prison: San Quentin. The construction of the facility began in 1852 with the use of prison labor and ended in 1854. The prison has had a storied past and continues to operate today.

The prison is situated on prime real estate overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The facility is almost 150 years old and some would like to see it retired and the land used for housing. Others would like to see the prison turned into a historic site and made untouchable by developers. Even though this prison may eventually close, it will always remain a colorful part of California's, and America's, past.

  • The convicts came to the 20 acres designated to become San Quentin Prison on Bastille Day, July 14, 1852.
  • The prison housed women until 1927.
  • The prison has the only death chamber in the state.
  • The prison has had its share of infamous inmates such as stagecoach robber Black Bart and Charles Manson.

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