San Quentin: California's Oldest Prison

Aerial view of San Quentin State Prison on San Francisco Bay
Gerald French / Getty Images

San Quentin is California's oldest prison. It is located in San Quentin, California, about 19 miles north of San Francisco. It is a high-security correctional facility and houses the state's only death chamber. Many high profile criminals have been incarcerated in San Quentin including Charles Manson, Scott Peterson, and Eldridge Cleaver. 

Gold Rush

The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848, 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.

Prison Ships 

Before a permanent prison facility was erected in California, convicts were housed on prison ships. The use of prison ships as a 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 a number of 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. Currently, it houses over 4,000 criminals, considerably more than its stated capacity of 3,082. In addition, it houses the majority of criminals on death row in the state of California. 

Future of San Quentin

The prison is situated on prime real estate overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It sits on over 275 acres of land. 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.

Following are some interesting facts about San Quentin: 

  • 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 method of execution has changed over time from hanging to the gas chamber to lethal injection. 
  • The prison has an inmate baseball team called the 'Giants' that plays against outside teams each year. 
  • The prison has one of the few inmate-run newspapers in the world, 'The San Quentin News'. 
  • The prison has had its share of infamous inmates such as stagecoach robber Black Bart (aka, Charles Bolles), Sirhan Sirhan, and Charles Manson.
  • Merle Haggard served three years at San Quentin for grand theft auto and armed robbery when he was 19. 
  • The first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in a prison occurred at San Quentin in 1941. 
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "San Quentin: California's Oldest Prison." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). San Quentin: California's Oldest Prison. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "San Quentin: California's Oldest Prison." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).