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San Quentin State Prison is one of California’s oldest and perhaps most infamous prisons. Established in 1852, the prison is home to the state’s only gas chamber and death row for all male inmates. With a total size of 432 acres, San Quentin is home to 6,121 inmates, approximately 2,700 more than the facility was originally designed to hold. Table 1 includes a breakdown of the prison inmate population by prison section. In addition, San Quentin has a total staff of 1,548 persons, which includes 915 custody staff and 633 support staff (social workers, etc.), and touts an annual operating budget of $120 million. Inmate programs include, among others: furniture and mattress manufacturing; vocational training in dry cleaning, graphic arts, printing and landscaping, literacy programs; and community service crews, etc.”).
At the outset, it would seem that San Quentin prison, under the direction of Warden Jeanne Woodford, is a well-run institution that suffers little from the modern chaos of most prisons. The reality, however, is that due to extreme overcrowding and lack of funding, San Quentin is one of the most dangerous and menacing prisons in the country. While it is true that San Quentin does a considerable amount of work to rehabilitate a cloister of its “low security” inmates, the reality is that San Quentin houses some of the most violent and infamous criminals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the most famous criminals to be housed in the facility in the past 148 years include:
- Black Bart - AKA Charles E. Bolles, who robbed 28 stages before being sent to San Quentin for five years in 1883. Famous for dressing nattily and leaving poems at the scene of his crimes, Bolles was never reported seen again after he left prison.
- James P. ‘Bluebeard’ Watson - Described as ‘a querulous fussy little man,’ who was suspected of hustling a number of his unsuspecting wives into the afterlife. Authorities, however, could never find a body so Watson cut a deal for a life sentence by telling them where to look for one. Watson died of natural causes in San Quentin.
- Robert Alton Harris - A double murderer infamous for finishing off one of his victim’s hamburgers after the crime, was the first man put to death in the modern era of California executions. Harris’ death in April 1992 came after a wild legal duel between the Supreme Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Around midnight, Harris was marched into the gas chamber once, only to be marched out again after the shrill of a telephone announced another reprieve. The second time there was no phone call. Harris died at dawn. His last words were borrowed from the movie ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’—‘You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper (“Big names..").