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Thanksgiving not forgotten in prisons

Even as bad choices landed people in state prisons, holiday celebrations such as Thanksgiving continued even while incarcerated.

Prisons began observing Thanksgiving in 1868

Thanksgiving events held in San Quentin really began in 1868.

“As the good people of San Francisco prepared to enjoy Thanksgiving Day, few thought of (those incarcerated in) San Quentin. A year ago yesterday several gentlemen of this town formed a committee to attend to the welfare of these unfortunates,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, November 19, 1869. “Yesterday a party of ladies and gentlemen set out on the steamer Contra Costa to attend and participate in Thanksgiving held at the prison.

In 1921, Folsom State Prison celebrated the day with a movie, baseball game, and running races. “A fine Thanksgiving dinner of roast pork and other good things was served,” reported The Folsom Telegraph, November 25, 1921.

The personnel were not forgotten as “an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner was prepared for officers and guards. The party was under the personal direction of Earl W. Blanchard.

New board chairman celebrates Thanksgiving with incarcerated population

When William Morrish was appointed head of the State Prisons Commission in 1925, he chose to spend Thanksgiving Day at San Quentin. He planned to see prison conditions firsthand and make announcements about improving rehabilitation efforts, including in the area of ​​education.

“A new education system will be put into operation in San Quentin. Prisoners, many of whom cannot read or write, will have the opportunity to engage in studies leading them to high school. All recognized subjects taught in public primary schools will be included in the new prison school,” the newspaper reported.

“(We) will resume working for the better welfare of the men and women who have been placed in our care,” Morrish said. “We are ready to forget (past criticism) and write our success story on a new page in prison history.”

It was also the first time the prison allowed incarcerated women to attend the annual Thanksgiving track meet. Although not allowed in the courtyard, the 64 women were granted a vantage point on the hill near the residence of manager Frank Smith.

“The routine of prison and the gloom of a foggy Thanksgiving morning were shattered by another innovation today, when prisoners received a special breakfast of pork sausages, potatoes and gravy , of bread and coffee. (This replaced) the usual bread and unsweetened porridge and coffee without milk. Warden Smith was responsible for the additional privilege,” reported the Oakland Tribune, November 26, 1925.

Sport a Thanksgiving tradition, even in prison

The 1925 track and field events began at 9:30 a.m., featuring the University of California track team and officials from the Pacific Athletic Association to act as referees and judges. “Nearly 1,000 visitors, all men, watched the various events which included the 50, 100, 220 and 440 yard dashes, high and wide jumps, tug of war, pole vault, the three-legged race and several (other) contests,” the newspaper reports.

At the time, tobacco and pipes were not considered contraband, as the track record shows.

“The award-winning prison athletes received pipes, tobacco, candy, safety razors, handkerchiefs, soap and ties,” the Tribune wrote.

The meal that year was roast pork and applesauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, bread, minced pie, candies, salted peanuts and apples. A total of 1,700 loaves of bread were consumed along with $2,500 worth of roast pork.

Prisons and Thanksgiving in the 1950s

San Quentin’s 1954 menu included 7,000 pounds of roast pork, 1,200 raisin pies, 1,200 pounds of cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, bread, coffee, milk, and sugar. The day ended with a concert and a baseball game.

On November 16, 1958, The Independent-Journal published an article about the efforts of San Quentin’s incarcerated kitchen crew preparing a Thanksgiving feast.

“Kitchen helpers today began the herculean job of slicing the meat from 190 turkeys, prizes for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner at San Quentin State Prison,” the newspaper reported. “The portions are weighed, wrapped and will be heated before going to the mess trays of the 4,844 inmates of San Quentin. Roast turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce and vegetables will be polished with minced pie for dessert.

The men were also offered “potatoes, baked yams, peas (and) green salad”. According to the newspaper, “the prison cooks had a full day’s work ahead of them” to prepare the holiday meal.

The California Institution for Women (CIW) and California Institution for Men (CIM) saw a movie and provided Thanksgiving meals in 1959.

“The CIW program will include church services on Thanksgiving morning and “The Great Caruso” (film) that evening. Turkey, potatoes, vegetables, salad and dessert will be served at dinner,” reports the Pomona Progress Bulletin, November 19, 1959. “A dinner of turkey with chicken broth and rice, potatoes, vegetables, and pumpkin pie will be served at the CIM. “The Ten Commandments” will air on Thanksgiving night.

Read the previous story about prison and Thanksgiving.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR Editor


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.