THE NATIONAL BIG HOUSE PRISON MUSEUM
Building a better understanding of the Corrections profession
(916) 985-2561 ext. 4589
THE HEAVENS WEPT
Gray, gray skies, and gray granite! According to the history of the day, even the heavens wept on the afternoon of October 17, 1878, as the frock-coated group of dignitaries huddled in a semi-circle on a bluff overlooking the American River, undoubtedly, they drew their velvet collars higher about their wet necks. On that afternoon, George C. Perks, Governor of the Sovereign State of California, turned the first shovelful of dirt that began the building of the State Prison of Folsom, one of the nation’s first maximum security prisons for the habitual prisoners of California.
Earlier, twenty years earlier, the State Legislature had appropriated almost a quarter of a million dollars for the construction of such a prison, but no effort was made to select a location until ten years later when the Folsom site was definitely agreed upon. Plans were drawn and discarded, policies expounded and tossed aside, editorials and articles of penology filled the newspapers and were hastily forgotten and another decade slipped away. It was then that Governor Perkins decided enough time had been wasted on planning and the building began.
Dennis Jordan of Sacramento had the dubious honor of being the first contractor, but labor delays and construction problems caused him so much trouble he was forced to forfeit his contract seven months later.
It was in the year 1880, that the State Constitution provided for a prison organization. A Board of Directors consisting of five members was created. The Directors were to serve for a period of ten years and were to be appointed by the Governor. This Board was given the full control of both State Prisons and all of the prisoners who were in them. One of their first acts was to cancel Jordon’s contract and to assume responsibility for the construction of the prison. They appointed William Johnston as superintendent of the work, he purchased new tools and hired nearly an entire new crew of one hundred and fifty workmen. Under Johnston’s foreman, J. W. Duncan, the work was speedily pushed forward.
The site chosen for the new prison was not selected on the spur of the moment. Water had to be accessible, land had to be found suitable for farming and the location had to be an isolated community so that town life would not interfere with the purpose for which the prison was being built.
The Legislature had asked for a maximum-security institution, one to be used for the habitual type of criminal and for the incorrigible. First offenders were to be confined to San Quentin in a more rehabilitative atmosphere but Folsom’s primary purpose was to hold and to hold securely.
The first two cellblocks consisting of three hundred and twenty-eight cells and were built on a bluff overlooking a bend on the American River. “B” Block was the first finished with 162 cells, and “A” Block completed with 166 cells. In those days it was truly a wilderness, rocky hills and jutting granite formations met the eye on every side, but the original Board had chosen the spot with an eye toward the future. In March 2, 1880 the two cellblocks were completed and a roof was built over there. That they were well built can be testified by the fact that they stand today.
Naturally, they cannot be classed with the modern cellblocks of today’s prisons. Perhaps the men who drew the original plans were more interested in keeping the occupant well shut in, rather than providing sufficient ventilation or sanitary facilities. Again, perhaps they were starting from scratch and had little experience in the building of the prison cells. In any event, the cells were built and they were used. When the iron doors were closed and locked behind the occupants, they were, to use an old Folsom expression: “Really sloughed up!” meaning they had been castoff from the rest of the living society.