Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


Prison Guards and Self Defense by Jason Brick

Correctional Officers at Folsom prison do not carry guns while on duty. They abandoned this practice around 1915, after #30, Frank Creeks killed a guard and made off with two gatling guns the guard had been bringing inside the prison. 
#30, Frank Creeks
When I met with Folsom correctional officers earlier this year, I learned that guards do carry pepper spray and a whistle. Other than that, they have only their wits and quick thinking to rely on. Today, I wanted to bring you another guest post from Jason Brick regarding prison guard self-defense. Take it away, Jason . . .

Self-defense for prison guards centers around setting things up so the guards rarely need to use self-defense.

In the beginning of modern law enforcement, this meant finding large, intimidating, violent guards and making sure they were the only people carrying weapons. That deterrence — combined with what amounted to carte blanche in using the weapons — kept guards reasonably safe by making sure people rarely started a physical confrontation.

As our society became more modern and aware of prisoners’ humanity, training changed its focus — but continued to focus on preventing altercations. Corrections officers received training in joint locks, defensive tactics and weapons common on the tiers — such as batons. In addition, they learned team tactics intended to stop a potential problem before it began. This ranged from how to avoid getting in one another’s way, up to spacing and psychological considerations to keep a prisoner off balance and intimidated.

Modern training incorporates concepts from military combatives, boxing, wrestling, judo and jui jitsu. It’s similar to what you might get in an applied self-defense course, with two major differences.

Focus on prevention — the bulk of corrections combatives focuses on setting up a scenario so you never have to become violent. This can include your positioning, the positioning of other officers, verbal redirection and the construction of a facility to give all advantages to the officers. Every once in a while a prisoner will decide to fight anyway, but this keeps most people in line.

Submission over destruction — aiming to get prisoners to settle down, rather than cause injury. The best example of this is the baton training. If you took a stick or baton class for self-defense, you’d learn to target the elbows, wrist, knees and head — areas that are easy to destroy that can take somebody out. In corrections training, officers learn to hit the upper arms, thighs and the broad planes of the back. These areas hurt, but don’t injure. Submission holds and joint locks take the same focus.

One final note is that the techniques officers learned are for the day-to-day control of prisoners. If a prisoner actively attacks a corrections officer, all bets are off. That officer is — generally — allowed to use whatever techniques he needs to get to safety. Retaliation is never tolerated, but if a prisoner gets injured while trying to injure a guard, that’s not considered the guard’s fault.

1 Comment

Scandal in Prison Baseball

Image: CA State Library 1913

Folsom State Prison started hosting amateur baseball games around 1913, although prior to this, the inmates participated in ball games during the annual July 4th Folsom Field Day that began in 1904. Amateur teams around California even came by for a game. Every weekend and every holiday the teams played; something the convicts—both players and spectators—looked forward to. Prison staff were also enthusiastic about this entertaining break in monotony. Captain of the Guard, P.J. Cochrane said of Folsom’s team in 1921: “I’d like to put this bunch of rock breakers up against that San Quentin nine. And I don’t think any of them would try to ‘break’ going over and back to do it, either,” he added proudly.

America’s favorite pastime, however, could not go without some underground dealings, especially in prison. Outside the prison walls, the “Black Sox” debacle rocked the baseball world in 1919 and in 1928, Folsom experienced their own scandal. Folsom boasted a four-team league, comprised of the Bon Tons, representing the white collar inmates, The Machine Shop, made up of the athletic roughnecks, The Bakers, and the Chapel, whose players were said to have a “religious bent.”

Despite the prison’s explicit rules against betting, players and spectators wasted no opportunity to wager on their favorite players. Currency came in the form of tobacco which in those days, was rationed out twice a month. It was a hot commodity. A clique of gambling inmates soon became the kingpins by not only fixing certain players, but then selling the winnings to the losing bettors at an exorbitant price.  When prison officials caught on, they discovered crooked players on all four teams, “including the supposedly up-righteously Chapel nine,” one newspaper said. The Warden disbanded the teams and officials at San Quentin joked that Folsom’s new teams would be based on its different classes of criminals:

“. . . the forgers will be Short Story Writers teams. The gas pipe thug element will be represented by the Plumbers. Safe crackers, of which there are a large number within Folsom’s confines, have dubbed their team the Bombers. Second story workers, who are to have a representative team, are undecided as yet upon a name. It is said there is divided opinion whether they shall call themselves the Human Flies or the Social Climbers.”


The Silent Man of Folsom

I’ve come across bizarre stories over the course of my research and for those tales that won’t be in the book, I like to share them on this blog. This is one of those fascinating stories that I felt compelled to spend some extra time looking into so I could bring it to you.

Charles Carson nearly became one of Folsom’s 93 and perhaps the title of the book would have been Folsom’s 94. Carson sat in Folsom’s back alley, or condemned row, for seven years; seven years of solitary confinement. He escaped the noose by never uttering a word.

I should start at the beginning of his story though. From the age of nine, Carson was in and out of juvenile halls and eventually prisons. In the early 1900s, while sitting in a cell at San Quentin, he and a buddy formulated their next crime for after their release. Staying true to his word, Carson followed through with the planned, but unsuccessful, robbery. He earned himself a life sentence at Folsom prison.

Not one to be idle, Carson and six others attempted to make a break for it from the quarry in 1904. Two guards and several of the conspiring escapees were wounded by gunfire. Carson and two others, J. Finley and F. Quijada, were all considered the ringleaders, and each received the death penalty in 1906. A bummer, thanks to Jacob Oppenheimer, Folsom’s 28th execution (but not until 1913). You see, Jake kept attacking and/or killing fellow inmates and guards, but since he was serving a life sentence, he merely ended up being transferred back and forth between Folsom and San Quentin. Prison authorities and law makers grew tired of Oppenheimer’s murderous ways, so they devised a plan. They passed a law in 1905, declaring that any inmate serving a life sentence who is found guilty of assaulting or murdering a fellow inmate or prison official, will automatically be given the death sentence. They figured it was only a matter of time before Jake attacked or killed again.

So Carson’s pals kept him company—for a while. Finley was granted commutation to a life sentence and Quijada? Well . . . he happened to be rooming next to Oppenheimer and as presumed, Oppenheimer himself took care Quijada, a one-armed Indian in 1911.

Back to Carson . . . By 1909, after pending appeals, he still sat in the shadows of the gallows. Then, in September, Carson suddenly and without apparent cause, lost his ability to speak. The warden and prison physician were rendered speechless themselves; Carson’s ailment baffled them. They requested state asylum doctors examine Carson. Amazingly, three years go by without determining a cause of Carson’s continued “mutism.” In 1912, The Oakland Tribune said Carson was, “Broken in mind and body as the result of six years constant brooding in solitary confinement in the death  chamber at Folsom prison.” It earned Carson another reprieve.

Physicians put Carson through many tests, one of which was the “ether test.” Doctors exposed the silent convict to the gas with the hope that while under “the intoxicating influence of the anesthetic he would lose voluntary control of his vocal organs and reply to questions put to him by the doctors.” Carson never made a sound. Despite this test, doctors declared at an insanity hearing, that Carson was sane, due mostly because the only signs of insanity were silence and blank staring. Back to his lonely cell he went.

Warden James Johnston and prison doc, A. E. Ingersoll weren’t convinced Carson wasn’t nuts. So more tests were ordered. Doctors tried “loosening Carson’s tongue” with the help of hypnotist, Dr. G.R. Hubbell, who did his damnedest to put Carson into a hypnotic state. It didn’t work. Hubbell opined that Carson was a malinger since Hubbell’s other mentally ill patients always respond to hypnotism.

“Electricity applied in a mild form” only produced a throat noise from Carson, but it still was the first sound from Carson in three years. Docs then tried the old water trick: tossing the patient from a hot water bath to a ice cold one. Again, no response.

Apparently, doctors grew desperate and threw a bowl of scalding soup at Carson’s face. It didn’t elicit the desired effect. In fact, it didn’t elicit much of an effect at all from Carson.

While riding the waves of yet another reprieve, Carson went up again in front of an insanity jury. Witnesses who testified against Carson at the original hearing, now changed their tune. They told the jury they felt Carson was certifiably insane. The panel decided that Carson finally earned himself a bed at the state asylum in Stockton. While there, Carson was caught smiling—the first observed display of emotion since 1909. Even though this remarkable gesture made the newspapers, it appeared to have little, to no effect on his mental patient status.

Stockton State Hospital/Asylum, 1910

Still under the sentence of death, Carson was given the ether test again—which he passed with flying colors. Carson spent the next couple of years being tested, and in 1915, Dr. F.W. Hatch, who earlier stated Carson feigned insanity, now declared the convict to be insane.

Finally, in 1917, Governor Hiram Johnson commuted Charles “Silent” Carson’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Carson would spend the rest of his life in the Stockton asylum. Johnson told the press, “I am convinced that at least substantial doubt exists as to the man’s mental condition and that after these many years humane consideration dictates a removal of the death penalty.” Much to the doctors’  surprise, even this news failed to induce a sound from Carson. The guy never uttered a “woo-hoo.” In fact, he maintained his silence for the rest of his life.

In 1924, after 15 years of silence and 11 years in the asylum, 42-year-old Carson died from heart disease. Dr. Fred Clark, superintendent of the asylum told the press that Carson, a model patient, spent his time playing cards and reading the newspaper.

Carson went 15 years without speaking. Whether it was self-induced or not, is impossible to determine, but he gained 15 more years of life. Perhaps in the end, Silent Carson had the last laugh.


The Parole Pendulum

In California, the parole system began in 1893. Before that, inmates had only their given credits for good behavior. Inmates used these “coppers” to secure an early release. Despite the draw to stockpile these rewards, prisoners still managed to squander them. The parole system offered relief to overcrowded prisons and the massive amount of pardon applications that piled up on the Governor’s desk. It also gave deserving inmates the chance to make good on their promises to “straighten up and fly right.”

To achieve parole, the prisoner needed to secure a job before he could take one step off the prison grounds. This often proved extremely daunting for some prisoners who had little to no friends or family on the outside. Unless someone could vouch for the inmate, landing an outside job from the confines of prison, was nearly impossible. He was also required to leave a $25 deposit with the warden. The prospective employer usually coughed up this money, as it would pay for the parolee’s return to prison, should he violate the terms of his parole. The employer also had to carry out his promise to employ the prisoner by attesting to it to the county clerk. After the warden, captain of the guard, prison physician, district attorney, and a judge all submitted recommendation letters to the parole board, it was the inmate’s turn. He’d write his own plea to the board and present it to them. If approved, the board gave him his “ticket of leave” and turned him over to a parole officer ( a new addition to the system in 1908).

So finally, wearing a clean shirt and having $5 dollars in his pocket, the inmate is released into a world that is neither sympathetic nor tolerant of him. Griffith J. Griffith, a successful businessman who served time in San Quentin from 1904-06, became a prominent and vocal supporter of prison reform. “If there be a time in a man’s life when he needs encouragement it is after a long confinement, when he leaves San Quentin prison. He is refused work, and if successful in getting a job, men refuse to work with him. If a crime is committed he is arrested on suspicion and frequently locked up for days or weeks without evidence. He is indeed a pariah,” he said.

By 1909, prison officials considered the parole system a success. Of the 609 men released since 1893, 57 violated the terms of their parole, 40 of which were sent back to prison, and 17 had died or slipped the system.

For some men, this freedom wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. In 1911, William Melton, a Folsom parolee, voluntarily re-entered prison after failing to maintain employment. He claimed that the “stamp of a convict” placed upon him, made life on the outside more trouble than it was worth. He felt that the parole requirements were too difficult to keep up with.

Today, California prisons face a staggering 70% recidivism rate. When the correctional officer at Folsom told me that while we toured the prison, I let out an indignant gasp. But then he reminded me that it’s important to acknowledge the 30% who are making good on their promises. Parolees are given “gate money” (between $200-300) and are assigned a parole officer to whom they report. Inmates eligible for parole have a counselor  to help prepare them for life after prison and can attend “pre-release” classes and GED education. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offers a Parolee Handbook that illustrates the tools available to the convict before and after his release. It may not seem like much, but it’s a far cry from a clean shirt and five bucks.

1 Comment

The Human Tiger and his underground telegraph

Jacob Oppenheimer, dubbed The Human Tiger, spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement in both Folsom and San Quentin. In fact, of his 18 years behind bars, roughly 16 of them were in solitary. Only during the last few years before his execution at Folsom in 1913, did guards allow him light, and reading and writing materials. During those years, Oppenheimer penned many essays, letters, and even his autobiography. An extraordinary writer, Oppenheimer possessed a vast vocabulary, intelligence and incredible insight into the outside world and the human psyche.

During his dark and lonely days, Oppenheimer developed and perfected a method of communicating with other inmates in the solitary ward, also called the “incorrigible” cells. The method, similar to Morse Code, began with a simple alphabetical diagram Oppenheimer created:

The only time Oppenheimer would speak to the other solitary inmates would be in the prison yard during their thirty minute-a-week exercise where he’d disclose the diagram. The other prisoners then scratched it into a hidden area on the wall of their cell.

Oppenheimer explained to his fellow cons, that a certain amount of taps on the wall represented a certain letter. For example, since “Y” was five over and five down, the inmate would use five taps—twice. “E” the fifth letter, required one tap, then five. At the end of each word or line, the messenger then tapped twice. Over time, other inmates divulged Oppenheimer’s communication system to the new arrivals in the ward, thus saving Oppenheimer the time and trouble.

Oppenheimer’s inventiveness and intelligence far exceeded that of the average convict at Folsom. Despite his dreary solitude, Oppenheimer’s writings exhibited an optimism not common for a condemned incorrigible.  In his letters to his attorney, this “caged tiger” often expressed gratitude and even joy. I’ll leave you with a sentence he wrote, ending a letter written on Christmas Eve 1907,  that seemed to exemplify his usual contentment.

 “The solitude which surrounds me is delightful to a poet for in soothing meditation I soar to heights among the fleecy clouds and into the blue atmosphere. . .”