More than 167 years after it was built, California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, still houses inmates. Although a small museum there is open on a limited basis, and a large number of volunteers visit the prison regularly, the prison with a view of San Francisco across the bay is not open to the public.
Fortunately, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides insights into the rich history of the old prison through articles published on its website.
Two regular features, Unlocking History and CDCR Time Capsule, are the work of Don Chaddock, a CDCR employee. He’s produced a large body of work since late 2014, entertaining and informing readers with true tales about staff and inmates from the early days at San Quentin and other old prisons of California.
Chaddock describes the historical articles and his research methods in this interview with Old Prisons Magazine:
OLD PRISONS (OP): You work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. What is your role and what brought you to work for the state prison system?
DON CHADDOCK (DC): My official job title is Associate Governmental Program Analyst for Internal Communications in the Office of Public and Employee Communications (OPEC). It’s a mouthful. It’s easier to say I’m the editor for the department’s online newsletter, Inside CDCR. I write articles, edit articles written by others, and publish one to three stories per day. I’m often also found with a camera, shooting my own photos for stories and sometimes travel to the institutions for my work.
After 25 years in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor, it was time for a change. OPEC happened to be looking for an ink-stained newspaper veteran, someone who had lots of experience, and I fit the bill. The prison system seemed much more interesting to me than most of the other state agencies.
OP: CDCR publishes a number of interesting features on its website, including the CDCR Time Capsule and Unlocking History. What is the difference between these features and how long have they been published?
DC: The department has had a newsletter of some sort for decades. There have been occasional history stories, mostly written about institutions, published over those years. One of my goals when I started was to bring Inside CDCR up to newspaper and magazine standards. In fall 2014, I wrote our first Unlocking History story, focusing on the first prison. That helped get the series started. Since then, the series has expanded to include staff members, inmates and programs going back to the creation of the state.
While I was researching the history at California Men’s Colony in 2016, I realized there were some very well-written pieces published decades ago that are still relevant today. Why reinvent the wheel? I pitched the idea to lift those original articles under the heading of CDCR Time Capsule. So that series grew out of a need but was based on Unlocking History.
The Time Capsule pieces reflect a single article, document, book or report. By re-publishing that piece, it gives a snapshot view into the department at that one particular moment in time.
Unlocking History relies on multiple sources and dives far deeper into those documents. The series breathes life into the stories of people who helped shape the department as it is today.
I’m very passionate about giving readers a chance to experience the job, people and surroundings of the department’s early years. We can look back and see where we started and just how far we’ve come. Both series also give employees the sense they are part of something far greater with deep roots in the state.
OP: Where do you get ideas for these features, and what resources (such as archives), does CDCR have for you to research? Are any of these resources available to the public?
DC: The ideas for the stories can come from just about anywhere. An employee might send me a question about someone who served time in one of our prisons. I’ll give it a quick glance and let them know if I have anything. But if my curiosity is piqued, chances are, I’ll start digging.
For a recent story on an aviator who flew over San Quentin in 1911, the whole premise was based on a photo I saw regarding a pilot at that time who was attempting to fly over the Sierra Nevada. I thought, “If the pilot made it that far, he must have started somewhere.” So I started digging and turned up all the information that led to the San Quentin connection.
I have some lists of the original prison employees and will occasionally research one of them, turning up an interesting background. Maybe they were part of the Texas Rangers and came to California to work in the new state prison. They could have served as a sheriff or detective before or after their state prison job. I find people much more interesting than an old building that readers can’t experience for themselves. If I’m doing a piece on a building, I will try to connect the reader to the people who worked in that building so long ago.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, ‘Where do you find this stuff?’
Unfortunately, CDCR has few historical resources. At first, I relied on what was readily available here at headquarters, which isn’t much. I began branching out, treating these stories just like any other I had written in my newspaper career.
Since then, I’ve worked with regional and local history museums, historical societies, State Archives and State Parks. Using my own funds, I’ve purchased numerous books written by former staff members. Friends will also sometimes give me historical reference books for my birthday or Christmas.
There is so much publicly available on the web, it’s just a matter of figuring out where to start. Calisphere.org is a great starting point for California history resources. It’s a collaborative effort of colleges, libraries and museums to offer digital resources. Other free sources are the California Digital Newspaper Collection and the Library of Congress.
Generally, if someone is interested in the history of a particular location, it’s best to find a local resource such as a museum or library.
OP: What has been the response to the articles? Have you had response from the public, in addition to departmental employees?
DC: The response has been positive from employees and the public. We’ve also had regional newspapers ask if they can republish the stories since it pertains to their area. We always say yes, as long as they give us credit. We’ve had libraries and museums share our history stories on their social media pages, which is nice because it acknowledges the work that went into producing the story.
OP: Of the various articles you have written, which have been your favorites? Which were the most challenging to research and/or write?
DC: Any stories I write on the early prison staff can be challenging. There usually isn’t a lot of source material other than prison director reports or records from the state legislature. Despite the difficulty, I believe it’s important to tell their stories. Many of them have been lost to time but they helped shape the department.
Stories about ideas, programs and concepts are the most difficult to craft. Researching a concept in history, such as technological advancements in the prison system, isn’t easy. The prisons went from horses to automobiles and from the telegraph to telephone to computers. Trying to tell that story in a relatable way can be very challenging.
I wrote about Asa Estes, who featured prominently in many early accounts of San Quentin. It took a lot of effort to dig up his story from the pages of newspapers, history books and biographies. I could not find a photo of Asa, despite my best efforts, but his story was a good one.
Probably my favorite story has to be Bill Byrnes. He was a California Ranger, veteran of the war with Mexico and was recruited to work at the prison by James Estell, who held the prison contract in the 1850s. He represents a time in California history that isn’t pretty but is important.
I really enjoy the stories where I can get creative. That really showed with a story on Bessie Barclay, the woman who sought a “boy’s life” and found herself in San Quentin in 1909. Employees loved that one because it was written in a different way than a standard history story.
I love history and find my job very rewarding. I mean, I get to peer into history and try to craft a story based on what I find. It’s a great job.